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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