A sexually insecure teen drifting through his failing bar mitzvah party. A good ol’ boy who needs to make sure he’s not gay. A financially squeezed cantor who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A young museum worker who thinks he’s spied something no one else ever has in the work of an obscure Renaissance painter. In Fire Year, his debut short story collection, Jason K. Friedman skillfully explicates the secrets, lies and unresolved shame in each of his characters’ histories. In service of their desires, the characters are determined to keep their secrets and make their lies work (or simply not matter), but they all pass a point of no return. They are forced to do things they might have thought they wouldn’t or see things they did not want to see. But they can’t stop the machinery or keep the knowledge from coming. Fate haunts Friedman’s characters as surely as it haunts the shtetl of the title story, whose periodic fires the inhabitants try to parse, predict and prevent through ritual and superstition. In the modern world we call this “magical thinking.” It blinds Friedman’s characters and so precedes their fall.
I have not found Fire Year to be on the radar of many gay authors or reviewers. In spite of the presence of male homosexuality in nearly every story, Friedman’s greater theme is those who are dislocated, squeezed to the margins, struggling to survive, pushed toward desperate measures. Gay people happen to fit this description. Jews and Jewish culture fit it superbly well. Friedman links the two oppressed groups in a quick moment in “The Golem,” in which Blaustein, a dealer in used auto parts, calls his assistant, Artie, a “fageleh.” It is not seem meant to address Artie’s actual sexuality. Blaustein instead seems to speak of Artie’s all-encompassing, intractable traits: bad luck, social awkwardness, isolation, and, yes, a kind of defeated sexlessness that must unnerve and repel the cunning, determined Blaustein. The story’s ending implies that Artie may have his triumph, but it may be a triumph in defeat. Even if you aren’t trammeled by shame, lies and desire, you never best the Blausteins of this world, just as the fires don’t stop (though the hapless hero of that story, too young to be sexually active but a bit of a fageleh in the Blaustein sense, reaches a private state of resolution), just as a young art history major will not best his oppressive curator boss, no matter the boss’s ridiculousness.
I loved “The Golem” and was on the edge of my seat for the art museum story, “There’s Hope for Us All,” but I find I have less to say about my three stories favorite stories from Fire Year: “Blue,” “All the World’s A Field,” and “The Cantor’s Miracles.” In these three, Friedman hits on something ineffable. One has no wish to take these stories apart to see what makes them work. One almost can’t. They are superbly detailed yet mysterious pieces of experience that fit the patterns and themes I have identified, but that pass through us, resisting too close an analytic look.
Like the fires of the title story, Friedman’s best stories surprise and haunt us with truths that are frightening and intractable but hard to name. Like the villagers trying to understand those fires, we try to understand the heat generated when characters’ egos press relentlessly against their sins, ignorance and limitations. But we don’t wish to stop the spark the author strikes nor the flickering mystery that springs to life. On the contrary, we welcome it. And we welcome the debut of a wonderful new writer – gay and Jewish, yes, but most of all human.
Reviewed by David Pratt