Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 280 pages; $15).
“It had been a warm, blustery day in a spring without rain. Henry lit a match. The fire looked clear in the sun and he threw it down, thinking the wind had blown it out and not thinking twice, despite the drought, despite the mulch under the boxwood hedge,” Dennis Mahoney writes in his highly-charged and blistering debut, Fellow Mortals. Henry’s trifling act of pleasure literally ignites a firestorm in a neighborhood, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Accidents happen to all of us; we are, after all, mere mortals, as Mahoney suggests in his title. Mahoney, however, is interested less in the act itself than in what happens after. Fellow Mortals is about how we handle the consequences of our actions.
Yet Henry’s mishap does not affect him alone. Henry is a mail carrier who takes great pride in his job. He always has a smile and a kind word for everyone, even those who are not so nice. His route includes Arcadia Street, “one of the smaller streets, a cul-de-sac with sixteen houses, tightly packed Capes with long backyards, the east-side homes bordering the woods and giving the block a special kind of privacy—rural and remote, separate from the town.” Arcadia Street seems tranquil and idyllic, until the fire that is.
Mahoney employs a bit of irony regarding Henry and his cigar. Henry “wasn’t allowed to smoke on the route. He wasn’t allowed at all, having promised it to Ava,” his wife. But Henry cannot resist, despite his heart condition, despite his promise not to smoke. He quickly smokes his cigar and delivers the mail. Until something stops him in his tracks.
A crackle is what Henry first hears before he registers anything is amiss. When he sees the fire, Henry immediately springs into action to save the people who live nearby. But he cannot save everyone. A young wife, Laura Bailey, is trapped inside her house. Henry is powerless, and so are the firefighters. “Pain like a hammer claw mounted in his chest, squeezing in deep and prying up his ribs.” When the firemen bring out Laura, Henry falls to his knees. Henry blames himself and carries around a great deal of guilt.
Many of those affected by the fire on Arcadia Street do not blame Henry, while others do. All fault aside, the victims’ lives have been dramatically altered. The fire destroyed the home of Nan and Joan Finn, two elderly sisters, and left them homeless. The fire made Sam Bailey a widower, leading him to seek refuge in the woods where he carves art in the trees.
Using crisp, stark, and striking language, Mahoney explores how culpability and penance can consume a character, especially one enmeshed in a tragic and highly emotional situation. Henry desperately wants those on Arcadia Street to forgive him. More than anything else, Henry sets out to atone for the calamity he has caused. He is determined to help the victims, whatever the cost, even if they do not want his help. This monomaniacal desire directs everything Henry does, from taking in the elderly Finns to befriending Sam to building a tree house for the Carmichael boys, whose mother, a real estate agent, laments over the decrease in neighborhood home values since the fire and hates Henry.
Fellow Mortals is truly a character-driven novel with multiple voices and perspectives. Mahoney is an exciting and genuine new voice in fiction with a debut that is equal parts astonishing and riveting. Because all of us are human, we can all relate to Henry. You may have never done anything of the magnitude as the fire he caused, but perhaps you can put yourself in Henry’s shoes. His actions are always authentic and convincing. The same is true for the victims. Mahoney is never critical of any of those whose lives are overturned by the fire. In the end, we come to understand each one of them, especially their overheated emotions, just as we identity with Henry.
With piercing prose, characters so vivid they light up the page, and a plot so hot it sizzles, Fellow Mortals is an intense and scorching page-turner that is sure to set the book world on fire. Mahoney reminds us that one dark and random act does not define us. It is what happens next that matters. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”