Katie Piccirillo Sherman
The New York Times recently revealed that 74 percent of Trump supporters advocate barring Muslims from the United States. This shocking statistic alone highlights the relevance of Greg Hrbek’s newest novel, Not on Fire but Burning. As CBS News revealed, “It’s impossible to read Hrbeck’s new speculative fiction [released in September 2015] at this moment in time without thinking about the Facebook posts in your feed about Paris, terrorism and Muslims.” Critics struggle to classify the book and alternate between calling it a thriller, mystery, science fiction, and dystopian fantasy. However, it’s unarguably an original with a place in everyone’s collection.
Hrbek opens with 20-year-old Skyler Wakefield witnessing the demise and destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. This act simultaneously propels the story and produces an element of intrigue as it’s never revealed whether it was a terrorist act, something nuclear, a natural disaster, or extra terrestrial intervention. Some early reports of 8-11 indicate that an Air Arabia plane crashed into the bridge but Skyler says, “It was too bright to be a plane.” She continues to reveal it was, “like something cosmic come at high speed through the atmosphere (3).” Skyler dies with her last thoughts being her 3-year-old brother Dorian.
Meanwhile, in the same future but a different reality, 12-year-old Dorian Wakefield is dealing with the fallout of 8-11 by contemplating killing Muslims and desecrating a mosque. The U.S. has been reorganized as territories and Muslims have been relocated to camps in the Dakotas. Dorian has continuous dreams about a sister who died in the attack. A sister the rest of the family claims never existed. During this time, changes are brewing in the neighborhood. The cicadas hatch. Streets are renamed for former Indian tribes and the Wakefield’s neighbor, Will Banfelder adopts a Muslim, drug-addled boy named Karim. Both Karim and Dorian have been influenced by the prejudices introduced in their social circles. After Dorian instigates a fistfight with Karim and two other Muslim teens, tension and violence within the neighborhood reaches an all-time high.
Hrbek highlights what could happen if prejudice overrides benevolence all the while asking the question, ‘Can a single situation define your core character? Can nature influentially surpass nurture?’ He deftly alternates from first, second, and third person; between narrators; and even, between realties using the space/time continuum. At first, this can have a dizzying effect on readers. But, once you get your footing, you will appreciate the core story and the internal conflict among characters. Said conflict is highlighted through Hrbek’s multiple perspective approach which allows readers to know the thoughts, dreams, truths and falsehoods of the neighborhood. With first-rate skill, Hrbek unveils the realities and prejudices of a 70-year-old retired veteran, a middle-aged mother, a failing writer/father, and pre-teenage boys.
The cicadas, which appear throughout the pages, serve as a continual reminder that something that has boiled under the surface for too long is about to hatch and cause an evolution. What this evolution will be — the perishment of the species or its possible rebirth — is left ambiguous, as is the story. This too is systematic. It’s Hrbek saying to his readers, ‘The choice between hatred and acceptance is yours to make. Choose wisely because the future can hold infinite possibilities.’
Not on Fire but Burning has the potential to make you uncomfortable, as all good literature does. Hrbek places a spotlight on the biggest story of our generation — terrorism in multiple forms. However, he also manages to simultaneously write likeable characters who persistently entertain. Whether you’re deeply involved in all things political or are just looking for a page-turner, Not on Fire but Burning delivers.
Not on Fire but Burning