THE FIRE WATCH by Alan Dennis Burke
Kirkus Star


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Except for a certain lack of shaping (especially towards the end), these slices-of-life--set in and around a racially explosive, Boston-style high school--make all the right moves; first-novelist Burke wisely opts for neither melodrama nor farce, taking instead the middle road of ironic, understated realism, getting the details right and letting the emotions and editorials take care of themselves. Also wisely, Burke makes his hero here not all that heroic: Peter Lyons, ""security officer"" at John Quincy Adams High School, is no benevolent White Shadow; nor is he a racist sadist. He's just a tough, cynical, ambitious, basically okay guy doing an impossible job--trying to keep white kids and bused-in black kids from killing each other--while pathetically bucking (even bribing) for a better job as Dean of 10th-grade students, endangering his so-so marriage (a brief fling with a pretty colleague), and moonlighting as a landlord. . . disastrously. This realestate subplot is in fact the strongest and funniest stuff here, as Peter sinks his life savings into the down-payment on a small apartment building in a borderline neighborhood and--after nightmare tenants and rampant vandalism--is driven to blowing it up for the insurance (with reluctant help from smarmy chum Emery). But Burke always brings the focus back to J. Q. Adams High: riots in the cafeteria; stabbings in the boys' room; an alcoholic biology teacher who shows movies (Shane, not science) to keep his students pacified; teachers toting pistols or being paid to take seminars in ""racial sensitivity""; the politics, the bureaucracy, the dreary mechanics of buses, suspensions, chaotic classes. It's all captured briskly--mostly in ear-perfect dialogue that's just about as true and raw and funny as that of George V. Higgins or Peter Maas. And, though Peter may seem to learn a moral lesson from the unnerving results of his ambition and greed, the effect is only temporary; when last seen, he has indeed ultimately benefited from his snakiness, and is about to cheat on wife Maureen once again. . . . Not for sentimentalists, then; nor for devotees of the well-made novel. But, as an episodic semi-documentary revolving around a believably beleaguered anti-hero--riveting.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1980
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown