by Dave Houlsey
Outpost 19 (2017)
Like most short story collections, there is a thematic through line that runs through Dave Housley’s stories in Massive Cleansing Fire – it’s right there in the title. However, unlike most other collections, the stories in Massive Cleansing Fire form the building blocks of a pre- and post-apocalyptic narrative, outlining both the early days and the aftermath and allowing the reader to fill in many of the blanks.
Stylistically, Massive Cleansing Fire reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, a set of linked stories that overlap in some places, yet often stray into wildly different plot lines and narrative voices. The sense of satisfaction that came from drawing connections between characters and events in Housley’s stories was one of the countless things that kept me, until I had blown through the whole thing in one sitting. Housley’s remarkable ability to develop a three-dimensional character in just a few short lines of narration or dialogue contributed largely to this as well, moving the book’s pace along at a rapid clip, and lending itself neatly to several stories that are more flash fiction than short story proper. Some of the stories don’t fit quite right into the overall narrative (The Fires III is more an extended riff on a popular commercial than anything), but any time I found myself losing interest in a story, it was already drawing to a close. Likewise, almost any time I found myself wondering what had become of a character from an earlier story in the collection, Housley was able to reintroduce them into the narrative in a way that felt organic. I’m extremely curious about the level of planning that Housley put into the relationships that are unveiled over the course of Massive Cleansing Fire, and even found myself wondering at the end if there were some connections that I had totally missed, before I realized that the stories were all part of the same narrative.
Countless writers have dealt with fire as a motif, using it as a symbol of destruction, of catastrophic damage. Housley does this as well – the vaguely defined apocalyptic scenario in several of the stories involves spontaneous, all-consuming fires as one of its stages. But as the title of Massive Cleansing Fire suggests, Housley also uses fire to allow several of the characters a moment of rebirth. A fire aboard a cruise ship forces a lawyer into a new job, new friends, a new identity. A writer ditches her manuscript and finds solace among paintings in a world on fire. In the very first story, a former combat photographer finds solace in the burning archives of a museum, a not-quite-familiar spectacle of chaos. Each point-of-view character is touched in some way by the eponymous fire of the title, and they are either ruined by it or, as in the epigraph, made clean. Naturally, stories done in this vein could get repetitive after a while, but Housley switches narrative tone and voice almost effortlessly – the most noticeable example being when he manages to get into the heads of all seven clowns, plus a monkey, in “Seven Clowns Before The Explosion.”
I’ve tried not to include too many plot details here, because I believe that going into Massive Cleansing Fire with very little idea of what to expect made it a much more exciting reading experience for me. It’s not only the kind of book that you can read in an afternoon, it’s the kind of book you can read in a couple hours – only 110 pages! But trust me, you’ll be glad you picked it up.