American Fire

Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

nolead begins By Monica Hesse

Liveright. 255 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Scott W. Berg


nolead ends 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. The firebugs turned out to be two locals, an ordinary couple in a complicated kind of love that found extraordinary expression in late-night flames.

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.

Her book is grounded on three 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 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 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.

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, and she makes us care.

Arson is an offense tailor-made for rural places full of old buildings, and Hesse also delivers a great book about fire. She 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?

Hesse's story is built on interviews, dozens of them: Just about everyone in town has talked to her. Only Tonya Bundick refused to do more than a cursory interview, but still Hesse bends over backward to make her a sympathetic figure.

The roads of Accomack County feel well-traveled; all of the people, by the time the book closes, feel awfully familiar. There are echoes here of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Hesse, using a similar reporting style, is not as ambitious or comprehensive. In the end, however, she may tell a much more human story.

Berg teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.