Massive Cleansing Fire
By Dave Housley
Outpost19 Books, February 1st, 2017
122 pages, $14.00
Reviewed by Eva Raczka
In recent popular culture, there has been the unsettling feeling that we are all preparing for the apocalypse. Whether it is television shows like The Walking Dead, CrossFit gyms, or even the news, life is constantly telling us that we must prepare. The absurdity is always close to the surface (I don’t do drugs because then the absurdity would be at the forefront, staring me in the face, asking me to make it okay). Dave Housley’s newest collection, Massive Cleansing Fire, is that drug: hyper-aware and pulling at cultural phenomena through binges of Friends and the khaki-clad commercials of “Jake from State Farm.” How does one come to terms with the absurdity of it all? Housley’s solution is to set it all on fire.
Comprised of eight stories, separated by eight short vignettes—“The Fires”—the collection is a quick, to the point read. Housley’s prose is simple and concise with wonderful, surprising observances that are both funny and sharply critical. In one of the stronger stories, “Those People,” the Sara Lane Luxury cruise turned nightmare, Sara Lane herself is described moving about the room, “like a politician at a hometown pig roast, looking each traveler in the eye, shaking with two hands, making jokes and small talk and complimenting the women on their clothes or hair, the men on their women.”
The stories in Massive Cleansing Fire lend themselves to paranoia and anxiety, including some of my favorites: “Those People,” “Lawn Man,” “Flies,” and “The Combat Photographer’s Wife.” All intersected by the fire and the threat of imminent apocalypse, the characters within share a discomfort in their lives. There live are bursting at the seams with the sense that things are not quite right, even before the catastrophes: of sickness and birds, and of course, fires.
That discomfort is palpable in “Lawn Man,” the story of Fernsler, a guy just trying to hold down his job mowing lawns so he can spend his nights watching Friends and drinking beer. He’s been in trouble before: “He pictured Mr. Thayer (a parole officer type) nodding his bald head and scratching away at the sheet on his clipboard, each of them just filling up boxes, passing the time until they could go about their business, until Fernsler either got himself in trouble again or he didn’t.” His job at the fraternity house proves problematic for Fernsler, resulting in a crisis completely unexpected. These impending happenings are initially shown only in glimpses of a “flu epidemic” flashing on television screens.
In “Flies,” it is the details of everyday reality that make characters create their own apocalypse. Left alone after his wife’s departure; Tony locks himself in his house, ignores his boss’s phone calls and arms himself with whiskey and a Weed Dragon fire torch to take on the flies that have suddenly colonized his kitchen. “The fire would find them in the places he couldn’t, the backs of cabinets, under the sink, wherever Karen had put the goddamn pineapple slice that had started the whole thing. She would be surprised, he thought, that he’d taken care of things so thoroughly.” It is an empathetic descent into obsession and madness that I highly enjoyed reading.
The final story of the collection, “The Combat Photographer’s Wife,” sums up this existential anxiety perfectly, “Their lives had been laid out in neat and orderly rows and, like people lost in a corn maze, they had simply lacked the perspective to see it for the series of impossible miracles that it was.” How luxurious to have the chance to remake your life before it’s too late (though the characters miss these opportunities). Even before the coming sickness and fires there are little details of life, details we are lucky to have, details that can also make life apocalyptic.
Massive Cleansing Fire plays on pop culture about the end of the world as if we may glean tips of actions to take and dangers to avoid. What kind of person might we be in those circumstances? Dave Housley gives us characters struggling with survival and even before apocalyptic events begin, in basic human interactions. For Housley’s characters, life is already a series of survival challenges.