And The Fires We Talked About by James Ross Kelly is an anthology of 35 stories of varying lengths. The tales are set mainly in and around the town of Medford, Oregon and the California hills, though some stray much further afield to North Africa and the Red Sea. Many contain pithy local dialect or idioms which bring a flavor of the forests and mountains in the area and the men who work at logging and tree planting in the unforgiving landscape. The stories tell of their lives, the back-breaking work, the dangers, and the recreational visits to clubs and bars. There are strippers and fistfights, and beer flows freely in the bars as the men relax and for a time forget the perils of their chosen field of labor. Some stories tell of military men during the Vietnam conflict and there is one particularly moving tale of a forest fire in the California hills. The author displays an extraordinary depth of knowledge about the nature of the forests and the logging operations, while he also bemoans the disappearance of community and a particular bucolic way of life as farms and holdings are snapped up by rapacious, faceless corporations. But there are more diverse tales too – tales that will stretch your imagination, such as Standing in the Rain, where he writes about an author who is experiencing a degree of success writing formulaic detective novels, but is assailed by one of his characters who is unhappy about the way the plot has developed. James Ross Kelly also displays an intricate knowledge of the topless bars and strip joints of the seventies and eighties – knowledge which features in several of the tales and perhaps particularly so in No One Here Gets Out Alive. Well-written and covering a variety of themes and subjects, there is something in this collection for most tastes but maybe should be avoided by your maiden aunt.I enjoyed And The Fires We Talked About; it contains many glimpses into worlds and ways of life that are rapidly disappearing. Written in a forthright, unflinching style, Mr Kelly’s characters live and breathe and rise solidly from the pages. There is a certain amount of sex and violence but I found none of it offensive and felt that it was in keeping with the themes being explored. If I had to pick a favourite story from the collection, I would choose The Fire Itself, a beautifully observed tale of a California forest fire along with a touching look at the natural ecology of the region and one family who lives in it. And The Fires We Talked About is an impressive anthology from the pen of a talented author – I do not hesitate to recommend it.
Kelly’s stories are tough, real, honest, and always true. Unadorned by gimmick or artifice, the pieces in this collection—all framed between the imagined voices of that most primal couple, Adam and Eve—carry us deep into the heart of a wild American world that in many ways (and most definitely for a lot of younger people) sadly no longer exists. The human settings of these stories—bars, strip clubs, dingy apartments, goldmines, ranches, logging crews, homesteads, highways—are rich with details and textures that linger long after the closing sentences. Beyond those, however, there’s always a sense of something even larger and older surrounding the often small, sometimes strange, yet always compelling events his narrators are recounting. Sometimes this larger thing is the natural world—the oceans and forests, the plants and animals—always placing the events into their proper context. At other times, it’s the human interactions themselves that somehow seem to take on this greater, at times even mythic, weight and power. Reading these pieces, we recognize how the hungers and desires, the fears and hopes, the regrets and epiphanies of his people have all somehow entered our cultural DNA, and how—like them–it’s up to each of us to come to terms with all the beauty and terror that comes with being alive. —Dave Sims Editor RawArt Review
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