Between the perils of seeking belonging at all costs with In the House of Wilderness and of familial fragility in Lambs of Men, Charles Dodd White hardly shies away from depicting the best and worst that Appalachia has to offer, a trend that continues in the small-town thriller novel How Fire Runs.
Set in Trump-era Tennessee, How Fire Runs aims its sights on Elizabethton, a town that’s a “hair under fifteen thousand souls” and whose lack of industry and highway connections paints a portrait of a community of “Christian men and women in this godless modern age.”
As the “momentary [stops] for tourists looking at autumn leaves or some strange half-imagined place they call Appalachia” imply, Elizabethton’s reclusive setup invites curiosity from outsiders, including a neo-Nazi group. Their charismatic leader Gavin Noon sets up shop at a rundown asylum near the town and erects the community of Little Europa – a community dedicated to a sense of Southern hospitality and closeness that “values a different kind of life” from the modern world’s.
That is, in Nazi parlance, a life of ethnic purity within “a place that would be receptive to the idea of white nationhood.”
As tensions between the locals and newcomers mount — tensions that the likes of county commissioner Kyle Pettus and Noon’s reticent lieutenant Harrison get dragged into — the town is forced to contend not just with the troubles brewing within its boundaries, but also its conscience. The townspeople’s white biases risk intensifying on Noon’s watch as he entrenches himself in a locale far away from the world he struggled to belong in, demanding “that [the town] reject the [outside] world.”
Making use of his Appalachian background to shine a light on the darkest recesses of the human mind, White doesn’t hesitate to portray folks all too eager to cling to the “inner content in being among others who shared the common roots of race.” Such are the roots that Noon and his neo-Nazi outfit aim to nurture without acting like the fascist caricature Elizabethton’s townsfolk would have preferred Little Europa to be.
The neo-Nazis’ participation in Elizabethton’s highway cleanup program is aimed at getting the townsfolk to warm up to the newcomers, particularly their brand of tribalism. Noon participates in a local election debate instead of gaining attention through “a kind of performance art” akin to the 2017 Charlottesville protests. All this “continued betterment through volunteer efforts and other charitable activities” exploits the good ol’ boy imagery that highlights not just a surface-level understanding of Southern communitarianism, but also the cracks that the neo-Nazis seek to fill with their rhetoric. They intend to foster an all-consuming single-mindedness “without understanding its eventual human cost” on Elizabethton.
Such single-mindedness shows the concealed fragility of what lies beneath the skin of Elizabethton’s and Little Europa’s inhabitants – the “fear of hurting those [one] loved” or losing the, along with their sense of belonging. Noon refuses to let go of the “strange and furious helplessness” stemming from his having lost loved ones to a tornado, to a world that seemed to bear “indifference to those who lived.” Kyle’s commission colleague Gerald Pickens feels like he no longer belongs after having his public image besmirched despite his anti-fascist intentions when he shot at neo-Nazis loitering around his home. White exposes the idea that unchecked passion can muddle sound judgment in the tug-of-war against the neo-Nazis, “an old threat dressed up new.”
This tug-of-war shows how folks can hesitate to choose sides, let alone take a stand — as exemplified by Reverend Winter’s reluctance to side against Noon. Not everyone hesitates though, like Frank Farmer, one of the town’s few Black citizens, who runs for office against Noon in a local election. But Farmer acts without violence towards the neo-Nazis, who wish to portray their enemies as part of a Left that’s “easy to lead by its own nose, so anxious to tear itself to pieces.” This yields a through line on how one’s distrust of the other can, if unregulated, morph into a belligerent lust for control.
But as White takes a closer look at the conflict brewing within his characters in the heat of political battle, his grasp on the through line can get unwieldy, leading to side story tangents that weaken the book’s thematic potency and cohesion. Kyle’s affair with a cheating Laura and Harrison’s secret relationship with Emmanuel, for instance, act more as discrete domestic drama than as part of the clash between Little Europa and Elizabethton.
It could be argued that the author aimed to emphasize via domestic drama how individuals seek a sense of belonging divorced from tribalism, particularly the kind trying to have everyone in its path assimilate into its rigid social fabric. And as “the silent pressure of Noon’s people” — like loitering around other folks’ homes in at night to perform reconnaissance — attests to, the neo-Nazis aren’t keen on having their vision of a cogent society fractured, a society in which one “defines [themselves] by fear and suspicion.”
At times bleak with its deep dive into the psyche of people projecting their woes onto others, the novel is also hopeful in its depiction of folks not keen on “saying [or doing] anything back in anger.” How Fire Runs holds a mirror to Trump’s America, asking if instead of free and brave, such a land is shackled, craven, and bearing a strongman’s guise, as though “the force of [one’s] bluster would make up for one’s lack of attention [and] failure of intelligence.” White spotlights the darkest parts of the American landscape and mindscape to compel readers to embrace not just an “outside world that [holds] onto a kind of reverent strangeness,” but also the need to keep insecurities in check. For that’s where fire — from distrusting the foreign — runs: within the mind’s walls before burning them down.
How Fire Runs
By Charles Dodd White
Published October 13, 2020