Play with fire

There’s an obvious reason adults read coming-of-age novels: They remind us of what it was like to change from child to adult. More than that, they evoke “real” memories. They probably don’t refer directly to us, but they certainly refer to people we knew—or thought we knew. As I read Reno author Ben Rogers’ novel, The Flamer, I was frequently transported back to the days Phil Burling and I tore up my home town in Nebraska. The hero of The Flamer, a middle-into-highschooler, Oby Brooks, is interested in making explosions, rapid oxidation, chemistry. I remembered the many fires Phil and I sparked up, only a few of which caused substantial property damage.

The author of the book is plainly interested in these things as well, but he’s also interested in the human chemistries of hormones, relationships and emotions—complex reactions among family members, friends, age groups and genders.

I don’t want to waste words with a long synopsis of this novel. It’s about a boy who’s confused about what kind of an adult he’s going to be. He’s smart, which never made anything easier for any kid. He meets an archetypal “man” who teaches him some neat stuff and who’s oh-so-much cooler than his mundane dad. He starts a series of events that burn down a big portion of his house. He’s got an adventurous-to-gay friend (who loves Vienna sausages). He gets his first job in an adult world, where he meets a woman who captures his fancy. He puts her on a right path then leaves without saying goodbye, growing from a maladroit but likeable kid into a maladroit but likeable adult and a master blaster.

I was prepared not to like the book. The word games irritated me from the cover on. I guess they’re over-broad for my taste. The Flamer? OK, I get there was a passive homosexual experience, and I get that the kid was interested in fire. (Although, to be fair, I remember being about this age when some older kid asked me if I was gay before it was a common euphemism. You can guess what I said.) Please don’t spell “ax” as “axe” in the first paragraph of the first chapter unless you want me to spend the rest of the book wondering if there’s a joke I didn’t get. The first word of the second paragraph was “Oby,” which I saw as a misspelled “Boy,” and then spent the rest of the novel annoyed by the obviousness of the anagram and hoping Rogers at least would not feel the need to explain it. While he got many nicknames in the book to illustrate his development, at least Oby wasn’t Aman in the end. But again, I’m fully cognizant that kids this age like this kind of word play, and when I was 14 or so, I used to love these connections I could make into the writer’s mind.

But I liked many more things about this novel than I disliked. I liked the foundation metaphor of explosive chemical reactions representing sexual maturity. Who didn’t feel like they were playing with fire at that age? Rogers does some provocative stuff with punctuation—omitting quotation marks, for example. His idiosyncratic punctuation is sort of a meta-symbol for what’s going on with Oby, experimental from a scientific method, which would make this a coming-of-age autobiography. I liked how Rogers used Reno’s streets, the hills west of town, the geography of this place as a character in the novel. Moving from home to school to trailer to quarry advanced the action from an uncertain security to a certain insecurity, the necessary journey in a coming-of-age novel. When Rogers wants to be subtle, he can.

But most of all, I liked the kid. As I said, I knew him.