A gay, parkour-loving pyromaniac takes a stand against Poland’s oppressive society.
Radek Tomaszewski, the narrator of the second novel by Cox (Shuck, 2008), is an artist with a peculiar specialty. He constructs scale models of major cities consumed by fires—Chicago circa the Great Fire of 1871, San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake—with the intent to burn them before gallery crowds. But with the help of Dorota, an art student, he learns to broaden his artistic and emotional horizons. Unified in their contempt for Polish homophobia, they perform stunts like using candles to spell out gay-positive slogans and participate in rallies supporting an apparently homosexual elephant at a zoo. Cox ups the absurdist quotient by making Radek an enthusiast for both Pink Floyd and parkour, a discipline that treats cities like obstacle courses. But aside from random character coloring, it’s not entirely clear how those enthusiasms serve the story; the novel’s brief chapters leap from one set piece to the next, hanging only to a thin thread of plot. That’s not a problem when particular passages are successful. One powerful, sensual chapter about a beach trip shows how difficult it is for gays to express themselves in public without fear. In another chapter, a gay doctor performs emergency surgery on an ailing Pope John Paul II (the novel is set shortly before his death in 2005), while pondering the Catholic Church’s homophobia—a scene that will gain added resonance in the book’s final pages. But such moments don’t compensate for the narrative’s lack of connective tissue, which might have made Radek and Dorota’s struggles feel less abstracted.
Ironically, this brief novel takes on too much: Cox knows his way around Polish fairy tales, soccer culture, Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry and life in Kraków, but his treatment of these is too glancing to have the intended emotional impact.