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In 'Fire Exit,' a father grapples with connection and the meaning of belonging

Tin House Books

There is a strange kind of novel that, more than a central plot, revolves around life itself. These novels are hard to pull off because they often deal with ineffable feelings -- loneliness, love, guilt, grief, heritage, family -- as well as everyday events presented under a new light.

Morgan Talty's Fire Exit is one of these rare novels, and it works wonderfully well. At once a touching narrative about family and a gritty story about alcoholism, dementia, and longing, Fire Exit is a novel in which past and present are constantly on the page as we follow a man's life -- while it also entertains what that life could have been.

Charles Lamosway is always looking across the river that divides Maine’s Penobscot reservation. On the bank across from the small house he built with his stepfather lives Elizabeth, the mother of Charles' daughter Mary, with whom he doesn't have contact. No one in the reservation knows about this, but the lack of contact has done nothing to mitigate Charles' attention or the love he has for Mary. But now Charles hasn't seen Elizabeth in weeks, and he's worried.

Charles has enough going on -- he's struggling to take care of his mother Louise, whose dementia is getting worse, and he's also trying to care of his alcoholic friend Bobby. But worrying about Elizabeth and Mary is constantly making him think about the past: his time as an alcoholic and the damage he did to himself and others during that time, the death of his beloved stepfather in a hunting accident with a moose and the ensuing guilt that has haunted him for years, and the way he has always been in the reservation but also an outsider. Even more than all those, Charles is haunted by questions about his daughter, and he's no longer sure that keeping everything a secret is the best thing to do.

Fire Exit is a novel about many things. Right at the surface are three big elements. The first is Charles and the relationship he has always craved, but has never had, with his daughter. He tried to talk to her once when she was a toddler. It was fast and it didn't end well. He kept the stuffed elephant he tried to give her for years, and eventually gave it to his mother hoping that having something to take care of would help with her dementia.

The second element is belonging. Charles has always been an outsider: "My mother and I were not Penobscot." But he has always felt connected to the reservation and its people, and he knows that place or having two parents who are Native isn't what makes or breaks an identity: "To think that the reservation is what makes an Indian an Indian is to massacre all over again the Natives who do not populate it." There are many indigenous people who don't live on reservations, and it's great to see fiction that deals with life in a reservation give those indigenous people the recognition they deserve.

Lastly, this is a novel about familial drama that explores how the death of Charles' stepfather fractured his relationship with his mother and how staying away from Mary didn't make him forget he had a daughter.

Right underneath those three elements are many more -- alcoholism, the way loneliness can shape a life, the need to escape, how not accepting homosexuality can destroy a childhood, and more. Talty weaves all these things together into a poignant tapestry that feels unique while dealing with universal topics. In less capable hands, this novel could have been a mess, but Talty's voice is always clear and direct, and that makes the story flow.

Some writers speak about writing while not speaking about writing, and Talty does that beautifully in this novel. "Maybe all we are is creation’s translators," thinks Charles early in the novel, "putting things like granite or oak or elephant or corn in a language they want to be put in, to give them bodies made of sound so they’re measurable." Fire Exit is about being and not being, about messing up and dealing with the ghosts of the past. None of those things are measurable, but the author finds a way to take measure with his words, and that makes this a remarkable narrative.

"We can complicate things, offer explanations that are as grand as sculpted marble, but sometimes simplicity is best and truest." This line from the novel describes what Talty's prose accomplishes in Fire Exit. This is a story about very complicated things that is very easy to read. That beautiful simplicity is no easy task, and the fact that Talty pulled it off in his debut novel undoubtedly backs the statement he made with his superb short story collection, Night of the Living Rez: Talty is an outstanding new voice with a lot to say.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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