Trapped in America: On Morgan Talty’s “Fire Exit”

Josh Billings reviews Morgan Talty’s debut novel “Fire Exit.”

By Josh BillingsJune 5, 2024

Trapped in America: On Morgan Talty’s “Fire Exit”

Fire Exit by Morgan Talty. Tin House Books. 256 pages.

BEFORE IT WAS refined by centuries of experiment and market expectation (or ruined by these forces, depending on your taste), the novel was essentially a simple technology: a person with something of above-average importance to say wrote it down, in the same way that they might write a letter, and then sent their message out into the world to be read by strangers.


It’s easy for us to forget the radical nature of this gesture, especially after novel writers have done so much to get away from their epistolary roots. But the invention that made the novel wasn’t free indirect discourse, or the unreliable narrator, or any of the other high-concept techniques that we have learned to equate with fictional sophistication. On the contrary, it was a shared inwardness: an extension of the letter writer and reader’s intimacy into a pocket universe that offered both the lizard-brain rush of personal address and the irresponsible thrill of reading someone else’s mail.


Novels these days don’t usually take the form of letter exchanges (although they do sometimes: see Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead or Ocean Vuong’s from 2019, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), but the legacy of their epistolary origins lives on. Above all, it lives in the rich feeling of intimacy that the form can still create—a feeling that depends on a unique combination of urgency and casualness, as if the story we are hearing were being whispered to us during an overnight bus ride. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of Morgan Talty’s new novel, Fire Exit: “I wanted the girl to know the truth. I wanted her to know who I was—who I really was—instead of a white man who lived across from her all her life and watched her grow up from this side of the river.”


Like so much of Talty’s writing, both in Fire Exit and in his widely praised short-story cycle Night of the Living Rez (2022), this feels direct to the point of uncomfortableness. There’s a looseness to the syntax, as if literary English were a suit this character had put on in order to talk to us. At the same time, the efficiency of Talty’s narration reminds us that what we are reading is not a hastily composed confession but a fictional impersonation of one. It’s a novel, in other words, which among other things is a machine for moving our interest from one sentence to the next, without ever interrupting the dream that the message in a bottle we are reading was tossed by a real person.


A quick recap of the plot setup will make it immediately clear what Talty’s survivors are up against. When the novel opens, our narrator Charles—a white man raised by a white mother and a Native American stepfather—has decided to confront the daughter he had almost 20 years ago with a Native woman. Elizabeth, the daughter in question (who is now a young woman), has no idea who Charles is, due to the fact that her mother left him to marry a Native man as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Her reasoning for this decision was that, since existing blood laws make it impossible for a half-white child to be raised on the reservation, Elizabeth would have had to be brought up cut off from her Native heritage.


Charles has borne the secret of his paternity for decades. But when he begins to suspect that his daughter may be suffering from a depression similar to the one his own mother faced all her life, he resolves to break his silence. A huge factor in his change of heart is his own experience as a non-Native child raised with compassion and love by his own stepfather Fredrick, whose accidental death in a hunting accident is one of the traumatic events underlying Charles’s own complicated relationship to his heritage. In a later passage, he uses the tortured but undeniable nature of his love for Fredrick as an argument for his finally talking to Elizabeth:


It was Fredrick’s love that made me feel Native. He loved me so much that I was, and still am, convinced that I was from him, part of him, part of what he was part of. That was how I felt about Elizabeth—in truth, she was a descendant only from her mother’s side, and if that were to come out and she were taken off the census, would she feel any less Native? I didn’t think so. Blood matters only enough to keep us alive. […]


And it seemed here, at least in my thinking, that to say blood doesn’t matter was to let her go, to tell her that she was not mine, that we had no connection. And while all of that might have been true, it was all untrue, because I saw her as mine, as part of me.


Charles’s thinking here is typically messy, but it’s the messiness of someone trying to make sense of the situation he’s in, as opposed to pretending he’s not in it. By refusing to streamline Charles’s language, Talty makes his narration feel sincere, almost improvisational—like the janky soliloquy of a hastily sent email. He shows us the tidal forces of love and blood grappling with one another inside Charles, pulling him in directions that are as self-justifying as they are legitimately searching.


The convoluted, often confounding nature of love is on full display in the relationship between Charles and his mother Louise, which in many ways is the mirror opposite of the relationship Charles has with Elizabeth. A hardened eccentric who has lived a mostly friendless existence since her husband’s accidental death (a death, we find out, that she still blames Charles for), Louise descends over the course of the book into the kind of superficially functional dementia that causes its sufferers to mistake stuffed animals for children. As her only living family member, Charles has slid, by the book’s beginning, into a reluctant caretaker role—one that leads both to intense frustration and to moments of unexpected connection:


She picked up the mug and blew ripples across the top. Between blows she asked, “Is it raining?”


“No,” I said.


“They said it’s supposed to rain.”


“Who?” I said.


She sipped her tea and made a pained face. “Jesus,” she said.


“What?”


Louise sipped her tea again and then swore. “How long did you heat this for?”


“I said it was hot. Jesus said it’s supposed to rain?”


She set down the tea. “Yeah,” she said.


“You’re talking about Jesus?”


Her tone was flat. “I’m messing with you. The weather people said it.”


The scenes of back-and-forth confusion between Charles and Louise are heartbreaking in a way that feels deeply surprising, especially considering how rare such depictions of dementia are in literature. Here, again, Talty uses the secret-room intimacy of the novel to show us things that feel excluded from other forms of talking and thinking—things whose embarrassing and painful nature have given us an excuse to pretend they don’t exist. His honesty gives a thrilling charge to the sections of the book that deal with Louise’s deterioration, as if we were reading a travelogue about a journey to a country that we didn’t even know existed. We laugh in recognition, unable to believe that people could live so close to the bone, but Talty’s sincerity convinces us—not only that they do, but also that the reality of their suffering is all around us, hidden only by our unwillingness to look.


The Crusoe’s-island strangeness of so much of Charles’s story—the hypnotic weirdness of his attempts to navigate heritage and Native law, the medical system, mental health issues, and other mundane disasters—is a testament to Talty’s talent as a narrator, but it’s also a demonstration of how unused we’ve gotten as fiction readers to receiving any correspondence from the economically depressed front line of American life. Much of the commentary surrounding Talty has focused on his Native settings and characters. But the sheer breadth of his sympathy in Fire Exit helps us see that his project is, in addition to being a specific portrait of a specific group and place, a much more universal depiction of what it means to be trapped in America—trapped by race, age, disease, lack of money, but also just by America: a country in which the dream of a life lived together has hardened into a rat’s maze of unfeeling separation.


If there is one power that is capable of overcoming this separateness in Charles’s life, it’s love—not just romantic or filial love but the in-the-moment sympathy of one person caring for another. This is the love that Charles feels for Louise and Elizabeth and also for other, nonfamilial characters like his friends Bobby and Gizos. It’s a force that is often complicated—which is the main reason we believe in it, since our own experience of love is that it is often much more frustrated and failure-ridden than books tend to admit. Fire Exit feels realistic because it understands love as being limited in this way—hemmed in not just by circumstance but also by the fact that it’s an emotion that has to take place in humans, the way that Communion is an event that has to take place in a church. Like that other channel, “blood,” such love moves unpredictably, forcing us out of our routines and into escapes that, for all their beauty, are temporary and partial at best—moments of clarity, instead of progressions into some idealized, unconfused state.


It’s Talty’s commitment to the hungover, anti-lyrical nature of fiction that gives the cathartic moments in Fire Exit their beauty and communicative power. At the end of the day, that’s what the book’s realism moves us toward: not the wallowing that makes so many depictions of hardship feel sentimental and exploitative but a desire to show us a reality that we recognize, and in so showing give us something to share—something we can have in common. Its picture of suffering is one we know, because it echoes disasters that we have seen and failures we have lived through. In this way, the healing message that it’s sending turns out to be addressed to us, whether we like it or not.

LARB Contributor

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine. He edits the Rustica Journal, a literary and arts magazine dedicated to the new pastoral.

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