By David Cappella
Piscataqua Press, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 2016
300 pages, trade paperback, $15
Chaldea, Maine, it turns out, is located somewhere along U.S. Route 2 between Farmington and Skowhegan. For 15-year-old Zeke Titcomb (given name Ezekiel), living in this small town may not be completely dissimilar to living somewhere east of Babylon between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers about 3,000 years ago. To wit:
“The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. … And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.” (Ezekiel I:3-4)
For Zeke is a fire setter, though for most of David Cappella’s novel “Kindling,” the town doesn’t know this. But we the readers do, because the story is told from two deftly handled points of view. Each chapter begins with a journal entry written by Zeke, who at the outset of the book is in the South Portland Youth Center following a series of arson fires. He’s been pressured into writing to try to expose the complex emotions that might have spurred him to set them.
The second part of each chapter tells the story of the town’s mounting fears over and inability to solve the arsons and arson attempts in Chaldea High School, the junior high, and other buildings. These narrative sections also portray Zeke’s family, whose angry, overbearing father is regarded with contempt by almost everyone.
In many ways, Zeke’s journal entries are the most fascinating part of this well-written, clever book. Zeke has three main themes in the journal entries: his family, his school life and his fascination with fire. In addition to his oppressive father, he has a rebellious 18-year-old sister, Michelle, and a betrodden mother. At school, he’s one of the kids who gets mercilessly tortured about his looks and whatever else the football players and “kewpie doll girls” can think of.
He describes his strange fascination with fire from an array of angles, and many of them circle back to his feeling that fire and language are almost interchangeable entities. He owes this sensibility to his English teacher, Mr. Coccinella, and the poet and school librarian, Mr. Resnick (whose circumstances seem modeled on those of former Maine Poet Laureate Baron Wormser, who contributed the poem “Of Small Towns” as a sort of preface to “Kindling,” who spent many years as a school librarian in a town located between Farmington and Skowhegan, and whose road washed out in spring).
Zeke expresses this preoccupation with the power and complexity of words with a kind of naive, burning awe — exactly what gets you started in the literary life. Coccinella and Resnick are intent on passing their own, more mature awe on to their students. As a result, couched in Zeke’s journal entries are copious allusions to fiery works of literature, from Dante (Ulysses engulfed in flames in hell fascinates Zeke — yet unaware that Ulysses’ special cosmic crime is uncontrolled use of language), to Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” to one of rock music’s early madmen, Arthur Brown (“I am the god of hellfire”), among many others, not least the Old Testament.
Midway through the story, in commenting on the community’s unsettling responses to the arsons, the police chief uneasily tells a Boston Globe reporter, “Fire is a special enemy of rural living.” In a way, this sentence encapsulates the core theme of the novel. Not only are literal flames to be feared, but also what people say about them. Or about anything, really — what the kids say about Zeke, or what his father says about Michelle, or what the reporter plans on saying to readers. Words start fires.
The complexities I’m scratching the surface of here make this book seem like it must be hopelessly complicated to understand, but it’s not at all. The story is told in straightforward English sentences that seem aimed toward well-read young adults. Zeke’s journals are cast mainly in phrasing an intelligent teenager who’s had good teachers might actually write, if he could think that clearly about his inner life.
My wife, the longtime high school English teacher, cautions against recommending for teenagers a book whose sympathetic protagonist is a fire-setting teenager. But on the other hand, “Kindling” is an insightful, realistic look into the life of a small town and school that could be revelatory for some kids — and could spark an interest in words which we desperately need more of, if the incendiary speech of one or two of the presidential candidates is any indication. This book may well light just the right fires.
David Cappella is a professor at Central Connecticut State University and the author of “Gobbo: A Solitaire’s Opera,” among other books. He’s a graduate of the University of Maine, where his compatriots included future novelists Rick Hautala and David Daniel. He was also a teacher at Madison High School shortly before it burned down amid a series of other fires in 1986. “Kindling” is available from Piscataqua Press and online booksellers.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].