The evolving fortunes of a large Boston firefighting family, the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942, the changing racial politics of Bean Town, the redemptive powers of work and writing—all intermixed with accounts of the derring-do of fire-and-rescue teams.
Kenney—whose grandfather was among the first on the scene at the Cocoanut Grove and whose father and other relatives have worked in fire-related professions—takes a holiday from the writing of fiction thrillers (The Last Man, 2001, etc.) to construct his own family saga. He seems to have epic aspirations—a multigenerational story with weighty themes of life and death and sacrifice and sin and redemption (all seared by flames)—but the writing is so conventional, so unrelievedly ordinary, that the balloon of his narrative never inflates. The family’s involvement with the Cocoanut Grove fire is of signal importance. The author’s grandfather sustained injuries there that forced his early retirement. And years later, the author’s father (Sonny) became obsessed with the story of the fire, particularly with its origin (still uncertain at the time), and spent more than a dozen years researching the tragedy—interviewing survivors, reading all relevant documents and even promoting the theory that methyl chloride was the principal villain. Sonny, who’d never had any literary aspirations, even published a few articles on the subject. (He, too, had retired early from the Boston Fire Department for injury-related reasons.) Kenney deals with the ugly racial issues prominent in Boston during the 1970s and ’80s (forced busing, hiring quotas). A couple of his brothers failed to gain BFD positions because a judge had determined that the virtually all-white department must integrate, even if it meant employing less-qualified members of minority groups. The Kenneys, one and all, were outraged. The author deals, as well, with Sonny’s long-running (and often losing) battle with alcoholism. Late in life, he joined AA, which seems to be helping.
Some poignant stories, lots of ambition, but the result is but a flicker of a flame.