Peeled emotional energy characterizes this portrait by Halberstam (War in a Time of Peace, 2001, etc.) of a firehouse that lost 12 of 13 men in the initial response to the World Trade Center attack.
It’s a difficult story to tell from almost every angle. The notoriously insular firefighting community doesn't accept strangers in its midst, let alone confide in an outsider, and most of the subjects are dead. Halberstam is striving to achieve sympathetic yet realistic characterizations of men he never met, most of whom were very young. So it’s quite an achievement that the author manages to get into the soul of Engine 40, Ladder 35, to give a glimpse of what it meant for these men to be firefighters. He nails the pride and purposefulness with which firefighters view their work, and how that sense of mission and honor melded the house into a family—a word that is not a metaphor here, since more than once the author informs us that someone was “a fireman's son and a fireman's grandson,” with brothers and cousins thrown into the act. The profession’s unique requirements, norms, and traditions seem to have passed through the generations like some DNA-driven imperative to create firefighters’ preternatural calm, their selflessness, and their simple, extraordinary willingness to troop straight into danger while others are streaming away from it. Although the firehouse is a raw, exposed environment (“everyone knows everything about everyone, and therefore nothing can be faked”), it’s not easy to draw out these men to speak of their dead comrades. Understandably, some portraits are more rounded than others, but only a few are pastiches of impressions that fail to jell. More often, the descriptions click, Halberstam succeeds in bringing his subjects back to life, and we ache as we suddenly remember that this man is no more.
Fine work that will leave most readers with even higher esteem for firefighters.