In his wonderful debut collection of seven short stories, Fire Year, Jason K. Friedman provides a firsthand look into the struggles religious and sexual minorities experience in the urban and rural communities of Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. This collection, which won the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction, also displays the ancient traditions and superstitions of Jewish culture as well as modern practices in work as potent and emotionally stirring as Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith.” Friedman is careful never to overexplain Jewish culture in his narration, instead offering just enough details to allow any reader to understand his characters’ beliefs and actions. In “Blue,” the narrator remarks, “A bar mitzvah was, after all, a religious celebration, and in those days it was religion alone that lifted me out of despair, inspiring in me the fervid hope that everything would be all right.”
The collection immerses the audience in the latent desires of a boy at his bar mitzvah, the personal confessions of a cantor, and the inner thoughts of a Jewish grandmother within her self-imposed vow of silence—yet it also features narrators of Jewish background who mention their religious beliefs sparingly as well as other speakers who never discuss their religions at all. Each of the stories in Fire Year presents a realistic narrator struggling with important issues such as acceptance or self-doubt. Friedman focuses on the basic emotions that make us all human—love, hope, anger, attraction, fear—allowing the audience to identify with the narrator’s plight: “Someone had to save him from the silence of the room,” offers the narrator of the story “Reunion.” “And suddenly there came the terrible knowledge that it was going to be me.”
Mr. Friedman creates a clear depiction of the settings and characters, providing narrative beats such as, “She looked down into her lap and tapped her feet,” and simple but powerful descriptions such as, “The necklace was a strand of gold hung with an emerald shaped like a teardrop” (“The Cantor’s Miracles”). The speaker in each story also provides a remarkable portrayal of the secondary characters, even if these people appear only once. In “Blue,” the teenager narrating says, “In the kitchen the two maids, my grandparents’ and ours, looked up from the trays of hors d’oeuvres they were arranging and smiled simultaneously. This struck me as a kind and classy gesture for which I felt absurdly grateful.” This sharp lens focused on each character creates an engaging and moving experience for the reader. In the penultimate story, “There’s Hope for Us All,” Friedman writes, “Our inner selves can be revealed by the strong artist’s hand.” This statement certainly applies to the work in Fire Year.
Though these short stories create realistic and rounded protagonists, Friedman occasionally inserts what some readers might consider too much detail in his elaborate backstories. This tendency only proves distracting in “There’s Hope for Us All”: Friedman dedicates a considerable passage to the rumors concerning the mysterious painter, Angelo Veneto, and follows this with another lengthy aside discussing renowned art expert Gloria Scipi’s research regarding this painter’s biography (which further restates that the artistic community knows nothing of Angelo Veneto’s personal life). While “There’s Hope for Us All” contains absorbing and riveting present-time scenes—such as Jon and his boyfriend, Ali, discovering the artist’s true intent behind his 500-year-old paintings, or Jon’s confrontation with Scipi over his radical new interpretation—the author also provides extensive intertextuality, even including a large portion of Scipi’s academic analysis as well as a lengthy segment of Jon’s equally highbrow response. These essays reflect a practical and scholarly approach to artwork, but such prolonged asides fail to advance the plot of the story and rarely add further insight into the narrator’s mindset or supplement his character arc—rather, these passages repeat previously established information and spend too much time creating extraneous backstory, a stark contrast to Friedman’s excellent use of interior monologue in every other piece in the collection. While briefer summary may have aided this story, the impressive attention to detail reflects a great deal of thought on the author’s part. Friedman’s meticulousness in “There’s Hope for Us All” indicates that the writer loves his characters perhaps not wisely but too well.
Fire Year offers a series of stories rich with not only affection, despair, charming misfits, conflicted passions, spiritual integrity, and brotherly love—but also lack thereof. Friedman explores the balance between religious morality and personal desires in a style similar to Isaac Bashevis Singer and contemplates memory and loss as masterfully as Nathan Englander. Readers follow a cantor through his desire for something more and his remorse once he acts on the impulse, an aging widow struggling to retain her ancestral traditions, and a young boy grappling with his township’s superstitious belief that his name taunts God and will cause a fire to devastate their town every seven years. Friedman carefully and patiently crafts his characters, using eloquent and potent description. Filled with haunting images, emotional upheaval, and enticing situations, Fire Year encourages a second and third reading.
Fire Year. By Jason K. Friedman. Sarabande Books, 2013.