“This Aint No Normal Fire!” by Gerry Stanek

Fire Cover

Genre: Short Story Collection
Publisher: Bituminous Press
Pub. Date: March 29, 2021

“This Ain’t No Normal Fire!,” is a collection of short stories set in the 20th century. The shorts all revolve around a fictional Pennsylvania coal mining town named Plattsville. This book is the second in a series although it can be read as a stand-alone collection. When I received this Advanced Review Copy (ARC), I saw that the author, Gerry Stanek, received praise on his first Plattsville stories from the respected author, Peter Orner. I was expecting stories that would be similar to Jennifer Haigh’s, “Heat and Light” and “Baker Towers.” Novels that I enjoyed, which are also about America’s industrial coal mining past in Pennsylvania.  Is this a good comparison? It is and it isn’t.

Some stories were what I expected. The author gives us an intimate view of individual marriages, dramas, and violence that play out against the backdrop of a gritty coal-mining town.  I also found something that I was not expecting. This collection had me thinking of the unconventional, often experimental writer, George Saunders. The first story, or possibly it is a prologue, is entitled “Fire.” There are no characters, nor a setting.  The writing seems to be philosophical thoughts written in a stream of consciousness. It gives the reader a hint of the stories’ themes—love, life, survival, and death. 

Next comes, “1922,” which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mining but still captures the underbelly of some mining workers’ culture, complete with men who like beer, whisky, and partake in wife beating. The main character is an unnamed priest who has a crush, really a sexual obsession, on the beautiful Mrs. Dietrich. She is a parishioner who happens to be married to a brute. It is an interesting story that hits a nerve regarding how we can all be vulnerable without being aware of it. I was surprised that it left me with strong emotions of empathy for the priest.

In “Union Supporter,” we meet John Sokol who will appear along with his eldest son, Joseph, in interconnected stories throughout the book.  In “Supporter,” I hit upon the sort of tale that I have always appreciated: fictional yet filled with facts that were previously unknown to me. We learn that John was concerned about Ku Klux Klan meetings that were happening near his town. The author makes John endearing to the reader by letting us know that naïve John admits that he didn’t know much about the KKK. He only knew that they were troublemakers who hated Catholics. We get a good feel into what makes this character tick. John was born in Poland and found work in the Pennsylvania mines. In the great flu of 1918, John loses his wife leaving him with four young boys. In a search for a mother for his existing brood, he goes to a church social. There he meets his second wife. They have a baby daughter but the father of the baby is questionable. With threadbare writing (the opposite of “Fire”), the author makes sure your sympathies are with John and not with his second wife.

In “Union Riot,” John’s son, Joseph is a young adult.  He helps put out a fire on the lawn of an Italian church that was started by the KKK. “Riot” is not a long short story. Still, it is an expository piece that gets under your skin with limited pages. The author writes on Joesph’s calloused hands fighting the coppers, who were using their billy clubs on those who were trying to put out the fire. He talks of the sort of bravery that can lead young men to an early death. He uses the word ‘fire’ as a metaphor to talk about the abject poverty where people are living in wood shanties without fire for heat or cooking meals. Stanek puts you intimately inside the oppressive Tammany Hall-like politics that took place in the old coal mining towns.

We find the book’s title, “This Ain’t No Normal Fire,” in the story “Gratification.” Here Joseph is at the Polish Legion for a dinner where the attendees are young single Catholics. The event reminded me of the wedding scene in the movie, “The Deer Hunter.” There is a strong flavor of the ethnic background of the guests. Everyone is working class, a bit drunk, and hoping to dance with someone cute. Here we see a darker side of Joseph. Patty, who is a pretty girl at the dinner, catches his eye. Joe is on his best behavior and is a complete gentleman with her. However, when they go to a Halloween party he drinks too much, which brings out his self-doubt, depression, and anger regarding the circumstances of his lifestyle. He thinks about heat, oxygen, and fuel, which is the face of the fire that he cannot escape.  Just as he can never be rid of the black coal dust embedded underneath his fingernails or in his lungs.

Besides coal, the author brings into his damp and dark stories the immigrant experience, religious bigotry, betrayal, love, hate, goodness, evil, and sometimes a bittersweet sort of hope.  I get the feeling that the author is saying that his characters believe that it is better to quietly survive, even if it’s on the bare minimum, than to give up.  For instance, John makes the best of his loveless marriage. I had a hard time reviewing this short story collection. It is well written and reads a bit offbeat. It frequently allows symbolism to tell its tales and is sometimes written in poetic prose.  However, I am someone who enjoys uncomplicated storytelling. What immediately comes to my mind is the classic “How Green Was My Valley,” which was also about a coal mining family. Of course, not everyone can write a future classic. So another example of the type that I enjoy can be found in the memoir and film, “The Coal Miners Daughter.”  So, this book was not a good fit for me. However, this is Stanek’s third novel. I am sure he will find his audience.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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