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The Wildfire Season

by Andrew Pyper

In a poignant section near the beginning of Andrew Pyper’s third novel, Miles McEwan attempts to come to terms with life after suffering disfiguring burns he received fighting wildfires in B.C. He returns home to Toronto with his girlfriend, Alex, but his guilt and self-loathing quickly tear their relationship apart. This is the most grounded section of the book, and there is a confidence and emotional immediacy to these scenes that is missing from the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, this whole section is essentially lifted from the title story of Pyper’s 1996 story collection, Kiss Me.

For those familiar with his early fiction, Pyper’s cribbing from himself will seem desperate. To readers not familiar with the previous story, the section will stand out as the work of a talented literary writer doing his best, but failing, to produce another commercial, plot-driven thriller.

Five years after Miles runs away from Alex, he is the head of a firefighting crew operating out of Ross River, an end-of-the-road armpit in the Yukon. Despite the fiercest wildfire season in memory, his crew is idle – so idle, in fact, that their contracts may not be renewed for the following year. This situation threatens the whole town, a substantial part of whose economy is based on the fire crew’s drinking habits at the local tavern, and someone takes the matter into his own hands and starts a fire for the crew to fight.

As the fire starts to smoulder, Alex appears with a daughter whom Miles has never met, while a hunting party heads out to bag a grizzly bear. What follows is a tale of a fire with a mind of its own, a psychopath with a grudge, a hunting trip gone wrong, and a tragedy-prone bear. The last of these gets Pyper into real trouble when he attempts to build tension by moving the story into the bear’s point of view but does nothing interesting while he’s there, giving the reader only off-the-shelf anthropomorphization. By the end, Pyper’s occasional literary pyrotechnics can’t save a novel whose credibility is continually strained, especially as the people searching for each other in this vast wilderness seem to trip over one another as often as if they shared the same three-bedroom apartment.