This book has a rather dark start, but I found it was actually pretty amusing once I figured the protagonist wasn’t really going to act out his frustrated fantasies. This is a solid guy read, but as a female reader I found it pretty compelling. This book is for mature readers of YA, and will probably find its way to the banned books list in short order, but readers should give it a fair chance before judging it too harshly. I gave it four stars.
Dark times have fallen on remote Balrog County, and Mack Druneswald, a high school senior with a love of clandestine arson, is doing his best to deal. While his family is haunted by his mother’s recent death, Mack spends his nights roaming the countryside, looking for something new to burn. When he encounters Katrina, a college girl with her own baggage, Mack sets out on a path of pyromania the likes of which sleepy Balrog County has never seen before.
A darkly comic tour-de-force, The Firebug of Balrog County is about legend, small towns, and the fire that binds.
Sometimes you have to go into a book with a certain mindset, and when reading The Firebug of Balrog County, it is essential. This is a book about a teenage boy balancing on the edge, teetering between his repressed grief and the compulsion that replaces the pain, if for only a little while. The language is pretty intense, his inner dialogue is predictably sex-centric, and some of his jokes are a little too dark for comfort. That being said, this was a compelling (and humorous) glimpse at a life in free fall, a place where few come across as anything but ugly. Mack lost his mother to cancer, and the void she left behind is killing him, his sister, and his father. As Mack’s connection with his family dissolves and his compulsion to set fires grows, the town mayor’s determination to unmask the fire starter terrorizing their small town goes into overdrive. Oh, and that mayor? That would be Mack’s Vietnam Vet grandfather whose only diversion in years has been against the dead leaves his citizens don’t bother to rake. Throw in a hot college Goth girl, one insanely cranky old timer with a sacred woodpile, and a dog with a wholly original proclivity for legs and you have a strangely comic take on how not to deal with your dead mother’s memory. This book isn’t for everyone, and even my liberal little heart stuttered a time or two in the first few chapters, but the more I let myself be drawn into Mack’s world, the more I appreciated the tone and attitude of all of the characters. Mack doesn’t appropriately express his feelings, but he does care about people and tries to show it in some rather badly conceived ways. Little touches of life in rural America come across as spot-on observations, and Mack’s narrative voice does slowly become less school shooter and a more likeable rebel-with-repressed-grief-as-a-cause. I thought it was a riot, especially when rural locals did what rural locals do. The events at the end were perfection, and I was thoroughly satisfied by the resolution. Honestly, I can’t put it in my classroom library because of the language, but high school guys, especially those who have grown up in the boring backwaters of America, will probably find this quite compelling, and it does have a message worth the perseverance.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.