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Onyx reviews: Fireworks by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop

Hollis Clayton is the author of one underperforming novel, but he's contracted with Random House to produce a follow-up. For months, he's been putting his editor off because he hasn't been writing—not since a family tragedy turned his world upside down.

When he was a child, his mother abandoned the family to join a commune, and then disappeared again, leaving behind all of her photographs of the family. His abandonment issues make him insecure and indecisive, especially after the aforementioned crisis, the full details of which are not revealed until midway through the book. He becomes paralyzed when he has to make even the simplest of choices, and his neediness has put a strain on his marriage.

Fireworks recounts the modest events of Hollis's summer, from July 4th to Labor Day. His wife decides they need to spend time apart while she considers their future, so she is in Maryland with her sister. The affair he has been carrying on with a young, aspiring writer is also dying on the vine. Hollis has lost interest in almost everything from his old life.

His is now a world of non-stories, his phrase for the anecdotes he tells that peter out without resolution. One time a narcoleptic asked Hollis to ride with him on a ski lift to keep him from falling asleep. Hollis agreed, but couldn't think of anything to say to the man to keep him awake so the man had to do all the talking. End of story. Hollis believes non-stories turn into stories simply through the act of telling them. His friends at the local bar aren't convinced. It would have been interesting, one regular says, if the narcoleptic had fallen from the lift.

Not much of note happens during Hollis's lonely summer. Fireworks is very much a book of character over plot, a non-story in it's own right. There's a lot of navel gazing…but that's not a bad thing because Hollis is engaging, if self absorbed. He drinks Jack Daniels like water and is more interested in spying on his neighbors (under the guise of research for his writing) than in communicating with them.

He adopts—or is adopted by—a stray dog, lives on take-out burritos (shared with the dog), becomes fascinated with a billboard offering a reward for information about a missing woman, has to take a crash course in bird watching to cover a lie he invented to explain why he was staring at the neighbor's house with binoculars, tries to turn his hedge into a topiary, and generally finds ways to avoid interacting with people outside of the bar.

Many of his adventures go badly wrong. A priest mistakes him for a homeless man when he falls asleep in the sanctuary. On his first-ever rowboat excursion, he is immediately swept up the coast by a strong tide. When he plays on a neighbor's trampoline while they are away, he injures his back and bemoans the fact that, at the age of forty-something, things that didn't hurt before now do. He sets out to avenge his lover based on a smattering of details and realizes at the last moment that not only can he not go through with his plan, he has no idea if he is targeting the right person.

The only writing he does for most of the summer is in the form of unsent letters to his absentee wife. His editor shows up at the door after Hollis refuses to take his phone calls, and invites him to a literary event where he will have the opportunity to pitch ideas to the publisher, but he underestimates the traffic into Boston and then gets diverted from the follow-up dinner his editor arranges to salvage the evening. Little of this has much effect on Hollis. He simply doesn't care any more, though he does count the days until his wife is supposed to return.

Until his long summer of solitude, Hollis knew little about his neighbors. More through miscommunication than design, he "befriends" them, though the friendship is more in their minds than in his. He ends up holding babies and attending family picnics almost by accident. He seems offended when a neighbor confesses to multiple infidelities, without recognizing his inherent hypocrisy.

The voice Winthrop creates is distinctive and appealing enough to get readers past Hollis's myriad flaws, and his mini-non-adventures are charming and symbolic of his existential ennui. It's a slight book, quickly read, but Hollis is one of those characters whose memory lives on after the covers are closed.

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