Kirkus Star


A Memoir
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All the critical stuff Hollywood never had time to tell you in special-effects epics like Backdraft.

Unger, a well-off Jewish kid with Ivy League schooling, isn’t exactly sure what a good firefighter is supposed to be when he spots a recruitment ad in a downtown Oakland bus station, and he’s even less sure he has what it takes to make it in gritty, big-city fire department. But he immediately draws the reader into the experience of finding out in a narrative consistently uplifted by candor and sensitivity, as well as the profane humor that firefighters make part of their ritual, often for the grimmest of reasons. Long before he gets to “working” a real fire, the self-doubting author plots to work the situation, intricately calculating how much quiet confidence he can exude without attracting too much attention, thus neatly avoiding confrontation with a motley assemblage of instructors and fellow trainees. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t, but Unger gradually realizes that placing life-or-death trust in another human being, and accepting it in return, is a bigger deal than knowing exactly where everything goes in the big red fire truck’s myriad tool cabinets. The bottom line, he discovers, is that the only way you learn to fight fire is by fighting one, then another, and another. Stumbling into a burning basement in dense black smoke, for example, Unger loses contact with the hose line he must follow, mistakenly gloves a building pipe instead, and “tours” the entire area blind, on his hands and knees, while all around him others work to successfully extinguish the blaze. “Fire is chaos given form,” he observes. “Any plan you make will be undermined; no strategy you’ve used in the past can be used again.” Often chastened, but impelled by the fierce pride his unit takes in a job well done, he perseveres.

Full of rare insights on one of the toughest jobs anyone has to do.

Pub Date: March 8th, 2004
ISBN: 1-59420-001-7
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2004


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