New York Times Book Review
Fire Gospels: A Novelby Mike Magnuson
The Fire Gospels takes place in the McCutcheon River Valley in Wisconsin during a long-standing drought. Through characters like Grady McCann, a hardworking maintenance man at an old folks' home; his wife, Erica, a strangely evangelic Catholic; and Lucky Littlefield, the local weatherman turned preacher who enjoins his viewers to "pray for rain" at the/b>
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The Fire Gospels takes place in the McCutcheon River Valley in Wisconsin during a long-standing drought. Through characters like Grady McCann, a hardworking maintenance man at an old folks' home; his wife, Erica, a strangely evangelic Catholic; and Lucky Littlefield, the local weatherman turned preacher who enjoins his viewers to "pray for rain" at the beginning of each broadcast, The Fire Gospels tells in vivid detail the story of the drought and how the townspeople are seduced into believing that Lucky will pull them through their time of struggle.
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Late this Augest friday afternoon, The sun shines hot and steady over McCutcheon County, and Grady McCann drives his Pinto wagon along Highway 50 toward the McCutcheon River Valley. He's burning his third after-work cigarette, you bet, and he's drumming a happy rhythm on his steering wheel, because today he just got paid, and all the rainless months in the world couldn't bother him. Up ahead the road is dusty white, lined with dead cornfields and tag alder thickets turned to crisp sticks. And the countryside is deathy brown. Even the jack-pine stands sectioning off the farms are brown and brittle-looking in the wind. This is Wisconsin, for chrissakes, and it looks like Egypt.
But Grady McCann is not bummed out about what he sees. No way. He's got an indoor gig, climate-controlled, that the drought can't touch. For ten years now, he's worked maintenance at the Shady Glen Convalescent Center, twenty miles north of McCutcheon, in Window Falls, and the drought, no matter how bad it is, doesn't change one bit what Grady does best: fix wheelchairs, mechanical beds, air-conditioning systems, boilers, phone lines, and fire alarms; and unplug toilets; and mop up various forms of body fluids powersprayed onto the nursing-home tile. Shady Glen without water would be a filthfest beyond belief, but with Grady on maintenance, Shady Glen's pumps run tip-top. The old wizzlers get their baths on time. Their mash gets mixed for lunch. Their ostomy bags get properly dumped and irrigated. And Shady Glen's water supply is gigantic, sure enough, the McCutcheon Aquifer, which extends from McCutcheon and Window Falls a hundred miles in everydirection-north to Duluth, west to the Mississippi River, east to the piney wastes of the Chequarnegon Forest, south into the Driftless Area, where Grady knows for a fact that the glaciers of the last Ice Age never crossed. It could take three drought years for the aquifer to run dry, and Grady figures the rain will come long before then. Folks thought the winter would never end, right? But it ended. Grady figures this means the drought will end, too. To Grady's way of thinking, the weather tweaks with his life about the same way his Pinto does: The Pinto is junk, orange and rust-eaten and rickety, but it's running, which is good enough for Grady, gets him the twenty miles home from work each day. Having a lousy car, having a drought going on, either way, Grady's wallet gauge is reading Maximum Full.
Where Highway 50 intersects with Midland Mall Drive, Grady gets stopped for a moment at the red light. This is the crest of the valley, and from here Grady can see the entire spread of McCutcheon bleached in the sun. Here's the new McCutcheon Mall: two hundred shiny cars surrounding a Sears, a Farm & Fleet, a Northwest Fabrics, and some littler stores that won't get Grady's paycheck tonight. And here's the valley itself. so dry it's gone beyond brown into hot wintry gray,bare lilac hedges, the spruce and balsam crisp as Christmas trees on their sixth week in the living room. Billboards and dead pines line Highway 50's descent to the McCutcbeon River,once a hundred yards wide, now barely twenty~ and Grady thinks the river, from the view on the valley crest, looks like a small glint of urine dribbling across the valley. Sure, the valley looks destroyed, but no way will it look like this forever. Rain will come. It always has.
And Grady is bored nutless thinking about the drought, or hearing about it. For weeks nobody at work or at the tavern has talked about anything else, no more bullshitting about musky fishing or deer hunting or the Green Bay Packers. Everything's drought this, drought that, or, the worst of the worst, all these Sheepheads in town getting together and praying for rain.
When he's halfway to the valley floor he passes a billboard featuring a solemn Lucky Littlefield, bushy beard and foo-foo Shirt, and these words: PRAY FOR RAIN, MY DEAR FRIENDS. This billboard wasn't up yesterday evening when Grady drove here, and the sight of Lucky Littlefield now, plastered up there and looking sanctimonious, sends a quake of vinegar through Grady's shoulders, causing him to veer sl Ightly in the road. That goddam Lucky Littlefield is everywhere these days-on T-shirts and key chains, on posters in grocery stores and in tavernswhich would be bad enough (that buttplugger shirt be wears, that goddam Southern preacher twang of his, the way be's turned everybody in McCutcheon into Dipsticks for Jesus), but Grady hears about Lucky all the time, not just the public Lucky, but the inner nauseating wonderful Lucky, because Grady's wife Erica works at Channel 9. Erica is Lucky's personal assistant, in fact, and works close with Lucky all the time.
Maybe even right now, while Grady innocently drives his Pinto to the tavern, Erica is nudging near Lucky in her sundress, that black cedar-smelling hair of hers two inches from his beard, and she's telling him ways to better fit Jesus into his Six O'clock Sheepcall, or she's reminding Lucky how terrific it is that he's leading McCutcheon to Christ. Surely later, when Erica comes home from work at eleven o'clock, Grady will hear some Lucky stories. Oh, he's got such strength during these hard times. He's started a nationwide fund to save McCutcheon's farmers. He's leading a care rally tomorrow.
At the valley floor Grady drives over the McCutcheon River Bridge, sees the rocks and stumps covering the riverbed, and he takes the standard turn off Highway 50 onto Mitchell Street, the road to his house and the road to the Liquid Forest Bar, where, until eleven o'clock, he will have fun, goddammit. He just got paid.
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Mike Magnuson is the author of The Right Man for the Job and The Fire Gospels. He teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
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