Post Road Magazine #14

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

Nick Antosca

I read Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire in 2003 for research purposes. Later I reread it for verification purposes: I wanted to verify that it was fucking great. It was. It is.

Young Men and Fire is nonfiction. Its nominal subject is the Mann Gulch tragedy, a 1949 forest fire that killed thirteen smoke jumpers, most of them barely out of their teens—but as his title suggests, Maclean was reaching for something beyond mere reportage. He constructed his book carefully, out of facts and meticulous research and dry calculation, and somehow when you aren't quite looking at them, those things roar up in a bonfire of sacrifice and memory, and the fear and awe of death.

Maclean's prose is indispensable to this effect. He was in the twilight of his life when he began writing Young Men and Fire, and like James Salter today, he had been writing so long and with such ruthless economy that his sentences had developed an almost supernatural power. As the smoke jumpers scramble up the mountainside, desperate to stay ahead of the fire that would soon consume them, Maclean writes, "a world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs."

Young Men and Fire is filled with extraordinary moments. A smoke jumper named Joe Sylvia is burned so horrifically that his nerve endings are scorched away and he loses the ability to feel pain, so before his death he sits around chatting and joking with his rescuers. "Since his hands were burned to charred clubs, " one of them later recalls, "I peeled an orange and fed it to him section by section. "

Then there is R. Wagner Dodge, "who invented a fire and lay down in its ashes." Which is to say that as the monstrous main blaze bore down on him, Dodge stood in a patch of dry grass and lit a circle of fire around himself. The grass under his feet burned down to nothing, and he pressed himself into its ashes as the main fire roared over him. He survived.

But most memorable, for me, is "Black Ghost," the ten-page story that precedes the body of Maclean's book. "Black Ghost," according to the publisher's note, was "found in Maclean's files after his death, his exact intentions unclear." They attach it as "a fitting prelude," and fitting it is. It concerns two incidents in Maclean's life: his near-fatal experience fighting forest fires as a fifteen-year-old in 1917 and his 1949 visit to the scorched moonscape of Mann Gulch, where thirteen young men had only just perished.

The ruin of Mann Gulch, he wrote, "was a world of still-warm ashes that had incubated once-hot poles. The black poles looked as if they had been born of the gray ashes as the result of some vast effort at sexual intercourse on the edges of the afterlife." Gives you chills.

Later a "hairless and purple" deer prances out of the ashes, as oblivious to its own condition as Joe Sylvia was before he died, then bounds blindly into a tree. These are the images that haunt me most from Maclean's book. People and animals about to die, or already dead, and still somehow trying to live.

Nick Antosca’s first novel, Fires, was published by Impetus Press. His writing has appeared in The Barcelona Review, Identity Theory, The New York Tyrant, The Antietam Review, Hustler, Opium, elimae, and others. He was born in New Orleans.

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