Smoke and Mimesis: On Daniel Gumbiner’s “Fire in the Canyon”
By Ellie EberleeDecember 10, 2023
Fire in the Canyon by Daniel Gumbiner
The first fire in National Book Award nominee Daniel Gumbiner’s second novel Fire in the Canyon (2023) seems less a surprise than an inevitability. It begins with a particularly dry summer amid the foothills of the Sierras. Locals wonder: “Had the land ever looked so parched? Had the reservoirs ever run lower?”
Sixty-five-year-old Benjamin Hecht grows grapes in Natoma Valley. His wife, Ada, is a commercially successful author; their son, Yoel, works for a production company in Los Angeles. Yoel and Ben are not on good terms. Yoel shut his father out after Ben’s 18-month sentence for growing cannabis while Yoel was in high school—a moneymaking scheme that Ben pursued at a time when “[e]verything was falling apart.”
Now, other things fall apart. “It was hard,” observes the omniscient narrator of the ongoing fires in Rose County, “not to feel like you were watching an unraveling. It was hard not to wonder where the bottom was. Was this the year they figured out what could and could not happen? Or would the next fire, once again, surprise them?”
When the smoke receded this summer, so did general interest in the fires that had caused it. Facebook and Twitter feeds emptied of anti–fossil fuel diatribes. In Toronto, friends and co-workers expressed relief that it was “over.” It wasn’t. As I write in early October, forests continue to burn not only in the province of Quebec but also in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. An estimated record of more than 69,000 square miles have been engulfed by flames (nine times the average, and two and a half times the previous record). During those four days in June, fire-related healthcare costs in my home province of Ontario totaled $1.28 billion. By the end of August, 181 buildings near Kelowna, British Columbia, had been reduced to rubble; tens of thousands were evacuated. The long-term fallout—particularly for remote or underrepresented individuals and communities—remains impossible to visualize.
Yet this impossible task is precisely what literary and environmental scholar Rob Nixon has urged us to undertake for over a decade. His seminal work of ecotheory, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), underscores the need to “engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.” Nixon’s book emphasizes how these “long dyings—the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological that result from war’s toxic aftermaths or climate change—are underrepresented.” Elsewhere, it stresses that individuals and communities “lacking resources,” including representation, “are the principal casualties of slow violence.”
In Gumbiner’s novel, the Hechts are accustomed to aridity. They’re veterans of red flag warnings and countywide power outages. But the color of smoke the morning after their annual solstice party sends the family packing. For the narrator, it’s “thick and deeply black, like the smoke from an oil fire.” For Ben, it’s “unlike anything he had seen.” He, Ada, and Yoel have the livestock loaded into trailers—“two mini Noah’s Arks”—before the official evacuation order is issued.
Fire in the Canyon is about ecological undoing in Steinbeck country (a late chapter nods directly to Of Mice and Men), where “[t]o be alive at all is to have scars.” It isn’t tough to anticipate what—after an anxious few days watching videos of planes dropping fire retardant over the lip of the canyon near Ben’s brother Andrew’s house in Talinas (a fictional coastal town)—greets the Hechts back home. The barn and toolshed are flattened. Worse, Ada cannot find her manuscript, the one whose publication they have been depending on to make it through the year. Frantic, farm-wide searches leave little question that her book-to-be has turned to ash.
What can the Hechts do? Ada returns to her writing desk to redraft, Ben to his fields to salvage singed vines. Neither is prepared to discuss the imminent possibility that they’ll lose the property. Meanwhile, Yoel sticks around, falling back into high school friendships and making new ones among a vibrant local cohort of artists and anti–fossil fuel activists.
Enter Halle, a heady millennial winemaker with a penchant for Ben’s Primitivo grapes. At Yoel’s urging, she and Ben concoct the business endeavor whose execution occupies the bulk of the novel. Typically, Ben sells his grapes to local distributors at a modest price. This year, he and Halle intend to build a label by themselves and split the proceeds. The venture appears promising. Yoel finds footing as a grassroots organizer. He and Ben begin to get along. The Hechts adopt a tentative optimism, undercut only by concerns about smoke taint and the “daily precarity of fire season.” After all, as the narrator notes of the Natoma population generally, “there was only so much they could take. They talked to each other of the fatigue, of the fear. To have this thing hanging over you, it crushed the spirit. […] Most of them woke in the morning and looked at the horizon and looked at the calendar and prayed.”
The climate—to say nothing of our writing about it—has changed drastically since Nixon published Slow Violence 12 years ago. But summers like this one remind us of his observations’ stinging salience. If, as writer Amitav Ghosh famously claimed, “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,” how can we find cultural forms to effectively imagine crises that, like Gumbiner’s wildfires, are at once instantaneous and incremental? How might we tell stories that help us make sense of climate catastrophes whose consequences are not only fast and spectacular but also accretive and slow?
A native of Oakland, California, Gumbiner is no stranger to breakdown. He’s currently working to resurrect an editorial community as editor-in-chief of the recently folded, more recently relaunched literary magazine The Believer. His acclaimed first book, The Boatbuilder (2018), honed in on opiate addiction; his new one reads like a timely installation in the fast-growing canon of climate fiction. It’s a necessary, balanced wildfire narrative released amid a deluge of tales about viruses and floods. It’s also an ambitious aesthetic tangle of climate crisis, slow violence, and literary form.
The novel runs thick with imagined history. Its opening line recalls the previous fall when, “across the Gold Country, it rained steadily, and the people of that hilly land, who lived up and down the spine of the state, looked forward to a season of balanced precipitation.” The narrator explains how the land “existed in a state of fragile equilibrium”:
If there was too much rain, the grasses grew tall, and in the summer when they dried out, they provided extra fuel and triggered large fires. If it rained too little, there was drought, and the land was both thirsty and more prone to ignitions. It had always been like this in the Gold Country, as long as the oldest of them could remember, but it seemed the margins for error had grown thinner. Anyone who was watching could see this.
In the space of a paragraph, Gumbiner obliterates the possibility of a secure, pastorally unchanging natural world. The landscape thrums with threats of meteorological and ecological imbalance. Any plausible claims of ignorance peter out quickly—after all, as Rebecca Solnit points out in a recent Guardian essay on climate change and storytelling, it is only “[p]eople without much sense of history [who] imagine the world as static.”
By contrast, Solnit writes that “[a] historical imagination equips you to understand that change is ceaseless.” She urges us to step back from individual events to absorb the broader context, cautioning that “[i]f you only tell short-term stories, it all becomes kind of meaningless.” Events in Gumbiner’s narrative are always long-term, inflected by broader, bleaker context. The present is perpetually transitional, precarious. The narrator’s matter-of-fact historical consciousness suffuses not only the beginning of the book but also the heads of ensuing chapters. As the story progresses, we learn how “[i]n recent years, during the months of the fire season, the residents of Natoma had grown accustomed to seeing smoke” and how “[i]n small foothills towns like Natoma, there was little reliable industry left. Most people worked in a tourism-adjacent vein, or the service industry, or increasingly, in the wine industry.” In this way, readers come to understand, everything that is Natoma bears the stamp of what came before. The fires, residents’ reluctance or inability to leave the region, Ben and Ada’s financial instability, Ben’s quarrel with Yoel—the proverbial matches were struck well before the book began. Any present problems only prolong the blaze.
The novel is an inherently capacious form: it augments the understanding that change is ceaseless. Over the course of some 300 pages, we bear witness as the “the rains [do] not come. Sunny day after interminably sunny day. The land growing ever drier.” Catastrophe accrues, relentlessly, by the chapter; the sheer breadth of the book evokes crisis in perpetuity.
The novel largely abandons ordinary methods of timekeeping. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty posits that ecological collapse has thrown our “usual historical practices for visualizing times, past and future,” into “a deep contradiction and confusion.” Climate crises are exacerbated by our inability to conceptualize many ongoing changes; we lack sufficient vocabulary to articulate shifts occurring simultaneously on planetary and human scales.
Gumbiner steers into this confusion to capture the insidious, often invisible nature of wildfire damage. The hour or day of the week is almost never specified. Rarely are exact months invoked—the narrator refers, most often, to “fire season,” and occasionally to an autumn that, “[w]ith any luck, […] would soon be upon them.” It’s as though the smoke from the fires has obscured clock faces and calendars and, amid the haze, time can only be measured by developments in the land, the weather, the range of human responses to it all. Accordingly, narrative sections start with vague situational anchors: “After the outages ended”; “One day, Yoel asked him to go for a walk”; “They were hearing, now …”
Of course, the residents of Natoma Valley devise alternate means of marking temporality in the Anthropocene. Individual days are distinguished by their air quality, or AQI scores determined by a free app. The Hechts’ stay in Talinas flashes by in a flurry of statistics: “The fire was 15 percent contained, 40 percent contained, 80 percent contained.” This fixation on the quantitative appears symptomatic of Chakrabarty’s “deep contradiction and confusion”—an attempt to systematize the knotted chronologies of a changing climate.
Gumbiner locates another, more organic vocabulary for the fires’ sustained ravages in the human figure. For example, consider Ben undressing for a bath in Talinas:
He stood naked in front of the mirror as he waited for the tub to fill up. An old man’s wide, wet eyes. Blotchy skin with pronounced green veins. Arms still strong from farmwork, but immediately useless, if and when his back decided to seize up, which was about once a month, one of his more regular maladies. There were also the worsening cataracts, the enlarged prostate and its accompanying nighttime urinations, the hypertension, osteoarthritis in the left hip, the rotator cuff trouble in the right shoulder, and the constant low-level burn of his hereditary acid reflux.
Years of precarity and stress have visibly inscribed themselves on Ben’s body—one recalls a defeated Richard II’s assertion that “time [hath] made me his numbering clock.”
This poignant, embodied inventory of attrition sits in stark contrast to the narrator’s description of the fire itself—of which there isn’t one. In a kind of inverted anthropomorphism, the fires’ fury is displaced on and into Gumbiner’s characters. Fire burned more than four million acres of Californian land in 2020, “a number so vast it is mere abstraction.” Played out within the familiar, perceptible bounds of the human body, the blazes’ consequences are not only made material but also read as recognizably unnatural. “Younger brothers weren’t supposed to go gray,” observes Ben upon arriving at Andrew’s house. Ben himself starts to clench his jaw. His hip acts up as his grapes approach the acceptable limit for smoke taint, and the usually stoic Ada’s hands start to shake; she resumes a course of Xanax that prevents her from thinking or writing coherently. Here are Steinbeck’s scars: etched into character’s brains and bodies, bringing “long” and discounted dyings alive in flesh and bone.
Among the losses from the fire is any lasting sense of normalcy. Centered as it is around agriculture, the book inevitably adopts elements of the georgic—a Western tradition of didactic, labor-focused nature writing, popularized by Virgil in a four-book poem that relates how the “farmer’s work proceeds in / Cycles, as the shuttling year returns on its own track.” American literature scholar William Conlogue, in his 2001 book Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture, has suggested that the georgic might be best understood as a “mode of thought necessary to sustain human life,” wherein “hard work is inevitable” and “humans ought to heed nature’s patterns.”
For residents of Rose County, hard work is certainly inevitable. In assuming a general rhythm of labor, many of Gumbiner’s passages exhibit distinctly georgic registers: Ben tends diligently to his grapes, employing agricultural practices that have served him well for decades; the Hechts and their friends are scrupulous in picking and then producing wine from the summer’s yield. If recovery—Conlogue’s sustenance of “human life”—is possible for the Hechts, it can clearly come about only through the ethos of concentrated, attentive labor characteristic of the georgic.
But the fires, to say nothing of the shifting climate more broadly, interfere with any enduring cyclical or causal logic. How does one heed nature’s patterns when those patterns begin to break down? What agricultural methods or modes of labor does a farmer resort to when old, tried-and-true ones don’t produce the expected responses—when nature no longer sticks to its “shuttling track” but demonstrates increasing volatility? For “[t]he fires seemed to move in different ways now. They burned hotter, burned larger, burned at higher elevations. Fire season itself lasted longer. People who had once thought they understood the parameters of how fire worked in the landscape now saw it as unpredictable.” This dissembling of georgic conventions undergirds Solnit’s contention that the climate crisis is, in large part, a crisis of storytelling. It’s a crisis that renders centuries-old narrative frameworks—to say nothing of ecological visions—inadequate. It’s a crisis that demands new ones.
The book’s ending disrupts typical narrative structures most dramatically. In a few pages, Gumbiner effectively torches the book’s anticipated trajectory. The result? A sense of hollowness, as we’re denied the crystallizing climax we’ve come to expect as readers. For all the novel’s smoke, one message seems clear: we’re in changed territory, ecologically and narratively speaking. The old rules of finding closure and making meaning no longer apply.
Really, it’s hard not to feel a little helpless closing the book. By finding such vivid forms to express the variously fast and slow violences plaguing the residents of Natoma, Fire in the Canyon hammers home how, in Ada’s words, “[t]his is a new situation we’re all in. We need to adjust how we do things.” Now, the question becomes exactly how to adjust, especially when so much time and effort (literally the stuff of hundreds of pages) might ultimately amount to nothing. Gumbiner offers no answers—only urgency. If one thing’s for certain, it’s that, like the damage smoke does to the lungs, crises of this kind will only build over time.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Mikkel Krause Frantzen explores emotions at the end.
Jaime Lowe reports on the neglect and exploitation coursing through the civilian fire infrastructure revealed after the release of her book “Breathing...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!