I wrote this novel, originally, when I was in high school, and I re-wrote it during college. Fire Work is a psychological drama, and also a love story. It is told by Jack O’Donnell, a teen pyromaniac from Jersey City. Near the beginning, he describes an act of arson, in an abandoned slice of his gritty neighborhood:
I set the metal container on the concrete ground and knelt beside it, and the cool round cap creaked as I twisted it off. The container was one of those red, rectangular cans—the ones that say GASOLINE in slanted yellow letters—complete with an aluminum handle that bridged its top, and a screw-on cap. I poured the entire contents of the container over the pile of garbage, which was spread across the width of the alley between the high, red brick walls. I was about to spark a match and make a run for it, when I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. I turned toward the street one last time and died when I saw what had triggered my instinct. At the end of the alley was a police car.
Quietly, carefully, I set down the can. I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. There were no lights, no sirens. Just a white Crown Victoria, stopped at the end of the alley, with the Jersey City P.D. shield showing on the shotgun door. From what I could see, the officer hadn’t gotten out. I strained my eyes to see what I could. The distant light of the street lamp flickered between the high brick walls of the alley. A summer night fog was beginning to settle. I heard a car door open, but I couldn’t see where. The same door, wherever it was, slammed shut. I don’t know how long I stood waiting, but it felt like forever. Finally, the officer turned the ignition. The engine started. The car drove away.
I should have just gone home, but I was too pumped.
Now there was no one. Not a sound resonated in the neighborhood. Not a sound in the alley but my own breathing. Nothing but dead silence. I unzipped the backpack and replaced the gasoline container and the flashlight. I zipped it shut and slung the straps over my shoulders. Then I picked up the book of matches, struck one, and tossed it into the gasoline-doused garbage.
I turned and ran like hell.
As the story unfolds, our protagonist takes on more endeavors, and the reader begins to learn what drives him. But Jack also, unexpectedly, falls in love with a nice girl. And then, equally unexpectedly, he discovers the satisfaction of tangible work. The story weaves through the blue-collar apartments, gritty streets, and eerie night subways of Jersey City, Lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn, at a time when the New York City region’s potential for danger and surprise remained real.
What I could not have known when I began writing Fire Work, in 1996, was that I would inadvertently capture some of the last moments before the Internet became a pervasive part of life — and especially adolescent life, in America. I also could not have known that I was describing a transitional — some might say funerary — period in the history of 20th century, working-class New York. Then there are the dated details, like the twin towers at twilight; calls made from pay phones; beepers and subway tokens. Twenty years later, these qualities of the story have come into starker relief. There may have been something enchanting about that time. Now, it feels very far away.
I had a literary agent for about a year when I was 24, but she did almost nothing. Shortly after I terminated our contract, I started law school, and since then adult life has meant fewer free hours. Trying to navigate the publishing industry, especially as an outsider with non-literary career aspirations, seemed like an exercise in futility. So I decided to self-publish.
For a while I used the pen name Ben MacNamara; a preview version on Google Books still exists under that name. (I plugged it on LT once, as the work of a “good friend.”) I used a pen name out of a general desire for privacy. But more specifically, I also worried that the language, the crime, and the coarse, poor environments in which the story takes place could be unacceptable to certain people in my professional life.
For various reasons, I’ve now decided to come out of the literary closet, so to speak; and to put out the latest ISBN under my full name, which I already use for the rest of my creative and professional work. And now I’m making a plug:
I realize that reading a novel seems like a commitment in these busy times, but I promise: this one moves fast, is relatively short, and has a lot of humor. It also has some pretty detailed descriptions of vanished, un-varnished urban settings from 1990s New York City and Jersey City.
If I were starting again, don’t believe I’d write Fire Work today like I did when I was 16, or 23. But I do think it’s a funny, meaningful story, about a time and place that deserves more literary attention than it has gotten; and I’m proud of the work that I put into it when I was, basically, still a kid.
I hope some of you will read it. I would love to get feedback from those who do.