When flames of pas­sion meet a land­scape of de­spair

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Scott W. Berg’s books in­clude “38 Nooses: Lin­coln, Lit­tle Crow, and the Be­gin­ning of the Fron­tier’s End.” He teaches nonfiction writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture at Ge­orge Ma­son University. REVIEW BY SCOTT W. BERG

The fires were big news, for a while. Ac­co­mack County, on Vir­ginia’s East­ern Shore, spent late 2012 and early 2013 un­der siege, en­dur­ing 86 ar­sons in five months’ time, most of them set in aban­doned build­ings. No one died. For a while, in­ves­ti­ga­tors won­dered if they had a crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind on their hands, but when the fire­bugs were fi­nally caught, they turned out to be two lo­cals, a pretty or­di­nary cou­ple in a com­pli­cated kind of love, a love that found ex­traor­di­nary ex­pres­sion in late-night flames.

He con­fessed; she protested her in­no­cence, not con­vinc­ingly; both of them went to prison. In March 2013, Mon­ica Hesse, a writer for The Wash­ing­ton Post and a nov­el­ist (“Girl in the Blue Coat”), trav­eled to Ac­co­mack County to cover the tri­als of Char­lie Smith and Tonya Bundick. The lengthy fea­ture story that re­sulted, “Love and Fire,” has now been ex­panded into “Amer­i­can Fire,” a brisk, cap­ti­vat­ing and ex­pertly crafted re­con­struc­tion of a com­mu­nity living through a time of fear, con­fu­sion and dan­ger.

What Hesse found at the end of her jour­ney to the far side of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay was Trump coun­try, though no one called it that then. Ru­ral and mostly white, Ac­co­mack County was and is a close-knit com­mu­nity bat­tered by a long eco­nomic de­cline. Af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, re­porters have fanned out to such places, but aside from a cou­ple of pages of meta-com­men­tary about mass me­dia’s ne­glect of ru­ral Amer­ica and a few stray ob­ser­va­tions about small-town mores and shop­ping habits, Hesse isn’t writ­ing po­lit­i­cal para­jour­nal­ism. Rather, her book is grounded on three core con­vic­tions. First: Ar­son, as crimes go, is re­ally, re­ally in­ter­est­ing. Sec­ond: A wave of un­solved crimes can have un­ex­pected ef­fects on the fab­ric of a com­mu­nity, not all of them neg­a­tive. Fi­nally, and most im­por­tant to Hesse: Love is strange.

How strange? Boy meets girl, boy pro­poses to girl on bended knee at the lo­cal road­house, boy and girl hit hard times, boy loses the abil­ity to per­form in bed, boy and girl drive a gold mini­van around Ac­co­mack County with their eyes peeled for un­used, de­cay­ing build­ings — of which the East­ern Shore has thou­sands, just sit­ting there, ready-made sym­bols of de­cline, oddly beau­ti­ful in their dere­lic­tion and oddly beau­ti­ful when set aflame.

Hesse spends a chap­ter com­par­ing Tonya and Char­lie to Bon­nie Parker and Clyde Bar­row, and she makes the anal­ogy work, though you may need to squint a lit­tle. Tonya, a lot like Bon­nie, was a show-off with some­thing to prove and a streak of po­etry in her soul. Char­lie, like Clyde, was . . . well, okay, Char­lie wasn’t much like Clyde. Char­lie was a high school dropout, a one­time vol­un­teer fire­fighter, a guy who thought he’d found the love of his life but who found him­self a world of trou­ble in­stead. Bruce Spring­steen would know what to do with this.

By Page 11, we know who­dunit. And we know what been done. The trick of “Amer­i­can Fire,” han­dled by Hesse with won­der­fully ca­sual as­sur­ance, is that she doesn’t show us her firestarters start­ing any fires, not un­til very near the end of the book. Rather, she shows us Char­lie and Tonya living the non­crim­i­nal half of their lives, the nor­mal part, and she makes us care. Char­lie tries to make ends meet do­ing auto body work; Tonya opens a small cloth­ing bou­tique in the of­fice of Char­lie’s shop. In one of the book’s best mo­ments, Char­lie and Tonya are shar­ing a Christ­mas Day meal at the Royal Farms gas sta­tion when they’re joined by a pair of po­lice of­fi­cers. They all know each other; ev­ery­thing in this book is re­lent­lessly lo­cal. “Y’all must be busy, with all the fires go­ing on,” Char­lie says to the cops. It’s a ba­nal scene, but given what we know and what we sus­pect by that point in the book, it’s also a small, de­li­cious thrill.

One of the glad­dest — and, in other ways, sad­dest — as­pects of the book is the way the fires bring the peo­ple of Ac­co­mack to­gether. Hesse mutes the poi­sonous spread of sus­pi­cion that in­vari­ably oc­curs in such sit­u­a­tions (she says that “peo­ple turned on their friends and neigh­bors,” but she never re­ally fol­lows up), but she does a mas­ter­ful job of por­tray­ing a com­mu­nity find­ing its best self. “No­body was driv­ing drunk, no­body was bur­gling,” she writes. “The sense of com­mu­nity out­rage and pride got larger, and the fire­fight­ers be­came in­ti­mately ac­quainted with the bak­ing skills of ev­ery sym­pa­thetic house­hold on the East­ern Shore.” Later in the book, Hesse tal­lies the hu­man ef­fort in­volved in fight­ing and in­ves­ti­gat­ing the fires set by Char­lie and Tonya: 41,302 hours, 14,924 of them over­time, by the Vir­ginia State Po­lice alone. At one fire sta­tion, vol­un­teers play “Call of Duty” day and night un­til they’re in­ter­rupted by yet an­other alarm — and off they go, un­com­plain­ing.

Ar­son is an of­fense tai­lor-made for ru­ral places full of old build­ings, and Hesse also de­liv­ers a great book about fire. In many places, “Amer­i­can Fire” re­minded me of Se­bas­tian Junger’s es­says on the sub­ject or even of Nor­man Ma­cLean’s clas­sic “Young Men and Fire.” Hesse is in­ter­ested in the way fire moves, the way it’s set and the way it’s fought, but most of all in the power it has over the mind: Why do we like to see things burn? By the time the cul­prits are caught, a squadron of ar­son­ist pro­fil­ers has de­scended on Ac­co­mack County, and their in­sights form some of the most in­ter­est­ing por­tions of the nar­ra­tive.

Hesse’s story is built not out of ar­chives but from in­ter­views, dozens of them: Just about ev­ery­one in town has talked to her, and the reader comes to un­der­stand that the au­thor’s great­est strength is her abil­ity to take peo­ple at face value, what­ever she thinks of them or what they’ve done. Only Tonya Bundick re­fused to do more than a cur­sory in­ter­view, but still Hesse bends over back­ward to make her a sym­pa­thetic fig­ure (by the end of the story, I was con­vinced not only that Tonya was guilty, but that she was in the grip of some kind of ad­vanced psy­chosis). The roads of Ac­co­mack County feel well-trav­eled; the houses feel livedin; all of the peo­ple, by the time book closes, feel aw­fully fa­mil­iar. There are echoes here of Tru­man Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” but for all that book’s majesty and dar­ing, some­thing clin­i­cal and su­pe­rior hov­ers over its prose; Hesse, us­ing a sim­i­lar re­port­ing style, is not so am­bi­tious or com­pre­hen­sive. In the end, how­ever, she may tell a much more hu­man story.

BON­NIE JO MOUNT/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JAY DIEM/EAST­ERN SHORE NEWS

TOP: A charred home in Park­sley, Va., in Fe­bru­ary 2014. It was one of the last to be de­stroyed dur­ing an ar­son spree in Ac­co­mack County. ABOVE: The aban­doned Whis­per­ing Pines Mo­tel in Tasley, Va., burns in March 2013.

AMER­I­CAN FIRE Love, Ar­son, and Life in a Van­ish­ing Land By Mon­ica Hesse Liveright. 255 pp. $26.95

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