257 pages, softcover: $14.
Aqueous Books, 2012.
Ben Rogers' engaging first novel, The Flamer, is the coming-of-age story of a young Nevada pyromaniac named Oby Brooks. Oby discovers his love for conflagrations when his father donates the family's dilapidated house to the Reno Fire Department to burn "for training purposes." The boy watches the fire, riveted: "A dragon was eating my house and I couldn't tear my eyes away."
The trajectory of Oby's life becomes even clearer once he steals some pure sodium from Mr. Weisgard, a scientist visiting his class. He smuggles it home, where it ignites his fireworks-packed closet. "That closet of yours," his dad fumes during the chaos, "it's like a munitions locker."
But there's no evil intent behind Oby's obsession -- he just likes to blow stuff up. Weisgard sentences Oby to kitchen duty while he tutors him in chemistry; Oby even wins several Boy Scout merit badges. As the boy's probation ends, Mr. Weisgard encourages him to nurture his interest in science and explosions. "Nevada's full of things that need blowing up," Mr. Weisgard observes, and helps Oby find a summer internship at a quarry. The author's talent for humor and characterization reach their height in the novel's quarry section, where a whole cast of colorful yet believable characters welcome Oby and initiate him into the secrets of their peculiar world.
Oby embodies the spirit of Nevada, given the state's tendency to ignite in spectacular forest fires, weapons tests and mining quarry blasts. And he has a strong, defiant affection for his home: "The prospect of ever moving away from Reno hit me like a body punch. … Maybe I was a high-altitude recipe. I might not rise anywhere else. Too much pressure."
Rogers writes with crisp precision about subjects as varied as science, the complex matters of the heart, and the Great Basin landscape. "The hills around Reno yellowed. The air turned hot and dry. Afternoon thunderstorms sent more lightning to the ground than rain. Brushfires flared up, blackening mountainsides. Atoms that had been sagebrush and pine trees were reincarnated as smoke."
The Flamer is a highly original and delightful debut by a writer who captures the quirks of this region with genuine love but without sentimental pieties.