Above the Fire: A Novel
- By Michael O’Donnell
- Blackstone Publishing
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
- January 3, 2024
A captivating exploration of who we become when the world goes dark.
Michael O’Donnell’s suspenseful and spellbinding debut, Above the Fire, explores the power of parenthood and one’s ability to overcome fear and uncertainty in the face of threats to those we love. A lawyer by trade, O’Donnell has transcended a dry profession by writing for such publications as the Atlantic and the Economist. It’s exciting to see him branch out still further into penning novels because he has an uncanny knack for the craft.
The story unfolds quickly. Doug, a middle-aged widower, and his young child, Tim, are on a father-son bonding adventure hiking New England’s Presidential Traverse, a series of peaks meandering through the countryside. Suddenly, the world is cast back in time. Some unknown force has obliterated America’s grid, taking out electricity, Wi-Fi, and all forms of communication. Those who came to the mountains for a temporary reprieve from civilization find themselves facing permanent isolation. From where they stand, they see a darkened skyline lit only by the glow of looters’ fires.
The remainder of the tale focuses on how Doug and Tim survive — and grow more confident — as time unfolds. O’Donnell plays upon the many fears we “modern men” (and the characters here are predominantly men) face. One is that of losing access to technology. Doug obsessively seeks a stray bar on his phone or a random Wi-Fi signal that would enable him to access the outside world. Even as he becomes accustomed to living in nature, he has a lingering ache for technology, a missing limb whose presence he can’t quite shake.
The author also explores to great effect the macho belief that even we domesticated types can overcome nature. Many of us think that, despite our endless reliance on creature comforts, we’d be able to hack it in the wild if the chips were down. Throughout the book, Doug is given the dubious honor of putting that theory to the test.
As it happens, he and Tim are fortunate to have their own supplies — the government shelters that spring up are stocked mainly for the well-to-do — and so don’t need to forage much. Nevertheless, Doug takes every opportunity to train his son to fend for himself. If nothing else, the downfall of society has taught Doug, like any good Boy Scout, to be prepared.
As it turns out, being prepared sometimes involves coming face to face with “the other.” Housed in another shelter is a suspicious character whose intentions are unclear. O’Donnell telegraphs this uncertainty early on; when we first meet the stranger, he is clumsily and intrusively forcing his attention on a female hiker who wants nothing to do with him. Is this guy a creep or just really awkward? Readers will have to find out for themselves.
Still, more terrifying than the other is the self. That’s likely why O’Donnell spends so much of the novel exploring the critical question, “Who will I become in a crisis?” Doug is quick to identify his only responsibility: keeping Tim safe. But what is he willing to do to fulfill that role? Steal? Harm someone? What lies will he tell his son to protect him not just physically but emotionally? What would we do?
At its heart, Above the Fire is a story of parental love. Doug watches Tim not just with nervousness over keeping his son from harm but also with awe and admiration for who the boy is becoming. Parents will recognize that sense of amazement. The child grows physically and mentally, gaining skills you never thought possible. The parent thinks, “I must have done something right.” But deep down, we know we deserve but a small amount of the credit. The glow comes from within the child, from some unimaginable place. It is a joy to see.
The strength of Above the Fire lies in O’Donnell’s decision to leave the big-picture, extraneous questions alone. It would’ve been easy for the narrative to devolve into a typical dystopian gore-fest, complete with fiery battles and overt clashes between good and evil. Instead, the author keeps his focus internal, addressing the struggles Doug faces in his own heart — the struggles any of us would face. It makes for a captivating read, and one that’s hard not to race through. Do yourself a favor, though. Take your time and savor every moment. This is a wonderful book.
Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.