In the opening of Susan Rukeyser’s debut novel, Not on Fire, Only Dying, high stakes are established when a woman reports her baby is missing. As the scene develops, it becomes clear there is more to everyone’s story. Lola, the mother reporting the incident, is very troubled, and the people she’s come to for help don’t even know she had a baby. Everyone has to face the possibility that it’s another one of her delusions. The only thing they are completely sure of is they want to help her.
The police are skeptical. They judge her on the surface stereotypes that are on the minds of her friends. Her biggest supporter is Marko, a drug dealing ex-con of Romani descent. For the most part, Marko becomes the driving character of the novel and the heartbeat of this unique and gritty story. He is dedicated to Lola and loyal to Mary, the owner of a salvage store where Lola first comes in for help. It’s shown early in the story that if he’s a man who has to protect, he might also be a man who has to attack.
His legs come scissoring out of a full-length oilskin duster. Black coattails sail out behind. Marko knows that when he moves, he becomes something dark and sharply angled. The decades have carved shadows behind his eyes and beneath his cheekbones. His brow is a frenzy of lines. He is frightening, maybe to the delicate.(p. 12).
The quick and concise detail of that last sentence is a good sample of how this story is so effectively told. It’s never forced. There always is a confident ease to its flow. Susan Rukeyser obviously knew how she had to tell this story.
Most of the action takes place in the shabby Hudson Valley town of Schendenkill. Before the day of the incident, Lola had only recently been back from living in New York City. This explains the group being unsure of her status as a new mother, but it also provides a place for Marko’s quest. Lola says the father of the baby is a man in New York City, named Daniel. Marco becomes obsessed with him, not out of jealousy, but by the motive of learning more about what has happened with Lola.
Mary becomes a good friend of Marko’s and draws out some of his past. This is the only time that the book dives into backstory when Marko tells her the specifics of his criminal history and spends some time remembering his Romani upbringing. This shows what has centered Marco as an outsider and is highlighted by this memory:
His mother replied, “Outsiders are tolerated here, sure. And, yes, that is much better than persecution. But it’s not the same as belonging.”(p. 82).
Mary also serves as a measure of how far people are willing to go with Lola’s story and when they need to give up on it. Her salvage business is appropriate subtext for their lives as old junk no one else wants to save or to buy.
Marko and Lola have a Sid-and-Nancy quality. It seems they are capable of any type of failure and spend most of their lives on the extremes. At times, they are the kind of magnets that repel, while other times they are the ones that attract. The title, which comes from an expression people used to describe a scenic trail in the Hudson Valley:
Hiking alone is discouraged. Someone must be nearby in case you swoon. Someone must remind you that the land you are on is not on fire, only dying. Gently as it’s meant to.”(p. 35),
also summarizes the connection between these two characters. They are nearby for each other when they swoon. They remind each other what is real and what is not. With all of these tasks, they have variable rates of success. With this story, the reverse phrase could also be in play: Not dying, only on fire.
Throughout their struggles, they aren’t always sympathetic characters, but they certainly are compelling. When Lola reports her baby missing, she is very upfront with including the detail that she had left him in a stroller outside a bar. Marko considers Lola “his girl” even though, at first, it seems Lola hardly knows him. I think the author makes them compelling not only by not hiding their weaknesses, but also by not overstating them or making a writerly show of being edgy. The characters just are what they are. Lola is very self-aware of the problem she presents:
Better to call them: Let’s Hope, Why Not, If It Shuts You Up. I tell you, Marko, no pill dissolves faster than a doctor’s interest when there are no signs of improvement. I never stabilized. I’m a disappointment at best.(p. 75).
Readers end up facing the same dilemma that Marko and Mary do. We can forgive Lola if she did leave a baby outside the bar because, regardless of the validity of her story, it’s clear she needs help. Once we get past her doing what none of us would do to our babies, two situations are possible: She is making her baby up, or her baby has been kidnapped. Either one is a case of her needing serious help. The suspense is guaranteed, but the lengths to which Marko goes to help Lola also makes for a sweet and compelling love story. It’s about intimacy against almost impossible odds:
Nighttime, finally, and once again Lola lies in his arms, as if this isn’t extraordinary, as if he never doubted he’d hold her again, as if she was never lost to him, a stranger sneering at his affection. They’re fully clothed, and Marko doesn’t care if that never changes. It’s enough, having her settled back against him, not poised to flee.(p. 92).
Marko continues his search for the truth into winter. He navigates doubts, his own bendable moral codes, and his precarious love for Lola. Getting there is a suspenseful page-turner that earns its ending. As it starts its descent to the final act, Lola and Marko have a fitting exchange about endings:
“People like happy endings,” she says, returning to her work.
“Not all people,” he insists. “Some of us just want real ones.”(p. 183).