Book Dabbler: The World is on Fire


Last June I drove to Osceola, Wisconsin, to paddle the St. Croix with a college buddy. I filled a cooler with beer and beef jerky—ready for a day of sunburn and sweat—but a thunderstorm forced me off the road before I left the Cities. I managed to avoid the flash floods and tree limbs in the streets, and made it safely to a barstool at The Nook in St. Paul. I called my friend and told him my reservations about canoeing in lightning. I was beached, plain and simple.

Instead of racing fish down the river that afternoon, I drank a bottle of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and stared at the handsome green trout on its label. At 7.0% ABV, it features a piney grapefruit aroma, socking you with centennial hops and orange zest before a slightly dry finish. Each time I return to Two Hearted, I’m reminded of a perfect summer day sunk by rain—and buoyed by beer.

In “The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of the Apocalypse, author Joni Tevis recognizes the river’s power to shape and change her life. She embarks on a rafting trip through Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, battling cold, fatigue, and constant daylight all the way to the Arctic Ocean. She discovers her first pregnancy just days before landing at a deserted whaling camp marked only by the gravestones of infants dead some 80 years. The effect is haunting.

Tevis then takes a private tour of a shuttered textile mill in her South Carolina hometown. Her flashlight beam points the way. “Moving slowly through the darkness like people floating in deep water,” Tevis focuses on the debris—dead light bulbs covered in lint, broken pallets, a barrel of bobbins—left behind by the mill workers who last punched out 23 years prior.

She dives deeper to explore the relationship between mills and rivers, noting the clay that makes up their smokestacks and brick walls, as well as the industrial power generated by a river’s current. That Tevis successfully weaves these elements together with a meditation on the song “When the Levee Breaks,” written by Memphis Minnie Douglas about the great Mississippi Delta flood of 1927, is evidence of her precise vocabulary and mastery of poetic language.

Water gives depth and shape to these essays, but on the surface, “The World Is On Fire” is Tevis’ attempt to understand her fear of and fascination with visions of the apocalypse. She surveys the wreckage in places where mankind and nature have collided. She visits the Salton Sea, an accidental destination in the California desert created when an irrigation project on the Colorado River went wrong. She writes about the nuclear testing grounds in the Nevada desert—a landscape forever poisoned by a thousand atomic tests. Though climate change is not discussed explicitly within these pages, knowledge of its causes and effects provides meaningful context.

In “The Lay of the Land,” Tevis climbs a fire tower in the South Carolina mountains and asks: “What if we could see further, see more?” From her vantage, she describes a sign outside a carpet outlet that references the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The images in these essays suggest that perhaps we don’t need to see further to see more; maybe we need only to look more closely at the damaged and discarded ephemera around us.

In its scope and strength of detail, “The World Is On Fire” is on par with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead,” a collection of award-winning essays published in 2011. When it comes to Tevis’ lyricism and emotional range, however, she hits notes out of reach to all but the late Freddie Mercury, the former front man of Queen and subject of her most heartbreaking and personal essay, “Somebody to Love.” When she needs hope, Tevis identifies the title song as her life raft. And in writing this book about confronting her fears, she has built one for the rest of us.

“The World Is On Fire” is available in paperback May 12.

About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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