Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Review: Not On Fire, Only Dying by Susan Rukeyser

Not On Fire, Only Dying by Susan Rukeyser
(Twisted Road Publications, 2015, 277 pages)
Reviewed for Cholla Needles by Greg Gilbert

Boil down Westside Story, Romeo & Juliet, and A Streetcar Named Desire, Jettison the dancing gangs, the Capulets and Montagues, and Blanche DuBois, and what remains are two hearts desperate to beat as one. The question is always: Will love triumph? That’s what matters, after all. Susan Rukeyser’s premier novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying is a love story that doesn’t prettify love. It doesn’t offer flowers and clichéd orations. It doesn’t cast anyone in gauzed light or in slow dancing juke box scenes. What the book does is present us with love in its gnarly realness.

Lola says her baby is kidnapped, and the reader soon wonders if the child is real. Only Marko believes that the baby isn’t a figment of her mental instability and pharmaceutical haze. An ex-convict and drug-dealer, he is devoted to Lola and acts as her knight in an effort to right her world. Armored with his love, his honor, and his black oilskin duster, his allegiance to her fragile belief in the child is the great test of his knighthood. Though his eyes, we experience Lola as a fully formed person, at times jittery and ragged, and at times “better.” As for Marko, one may ask if he is an antihero. This is a central question in the story. Is he tilting at windmills, or is there a gallant obligation in his quest? Is true heroism founded in the heart of the warrior, regardless of the rightness of the quest? In a world of artifice, Marko may lack the qualities of a “leading man,” but just as Rukeyser’s depiction of love is cleaved to the bone, so too is Marko’s heroism. His strides are long, his love is true, his duster spreads behind him like a cape. He is all sinew and scars and heart. He is never ridiculous. Even his violence and his moments of confusion and doubt are virtuous – except for when his violence has the final word. And even then, we are inclined to forgive.  

Not On Fire, Only Dying is a compelling novel. Susan Rukeyser is a gifted writer and storyteller. Without relying on sentimentality, she draws us into the lives of her characters, some worthy of our affection and admiration, others deserving of our scorn. Her scene setting is brief and atmospheric, often poetic but never heavy-handed. Her pacing is patient, and her narration occurs from within the story’s interior. This is a streetwise book. Hardcore realities are commonplace, a one room apartment without a closet, bitter icy waters that promise infinite rest, hopes hung on a precarious balance, the world of pharmaceuticals and back-alley sleight-of-hand, and, hauntingly, in the background – the punctuating cries of a lone infant. The story of Lola and Marko is one where love is acid etched onto the hearts of two weathered souls who might become one another’s redeemer. This is a story that will sit in the reader like a personal memory.

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