The Fire Eaters

William Cobb, Author
William Cobb, Author W. W. Norton & Company $22 (316p) ISBN 978-0-393-03581-0
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
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Cobb's short stories, printed in the New Yorker and other magazines, hinted at the power he displays in this beautifully controlled and convincing debut, winner of the 1992 Associated Writing Programs award for the novel. In graceful, haunting prose he explores the fragile bonds that hold together a large, poor Texas family who struggle with a succession of unsuccessful men as husbands and fathers. Damon Bell, the narrator, and his four siblings are benighted by two secrets: the manner in which their gambling father died; and the race of their maternal grandfather, who was black. Their distraught mother Clara keeps the latter secret from both her second husband, an alcoholic car salesman who deserts her and leaves her with an additional three stepchildren, and her third, with whom she opens a seaside restaurant. Damon is aware of this new stepfather's disdain, and he suffers when he hears the man tell racist jokes. After the kids at Damon's school find out that he is one-quarter black, he is taunted by racist epithets. Damon finds a role model in his older brother Louis until the latter, a drug-taking hippie, becomes a paranoid schizophrenic. Arson, juvenile delinquency, a teenaged daughter's out-of-wedlock pregnancy, another suicide and the mother's shame at her racial identity nearly destroy the family, but Cobb makes their sad reunion the climax of this tragic, yet tender narrative. (Mar.)
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