It’s tempting to say that Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, But Burning is to the War on Terror what Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is to World War II (or perhaps to the Vietnam War, since Slaughterhouse-Five was published at its height in 1969). Both are works of speculative fiction (“science fiction” seems too narrow a category for Hrbek’s novel) about the tragic folly of war whose characters, as Vonnegut phrased it, come “unstuck in time.”
Not on Fire, But Burning begins with a cataclysm in San Francisco, then jumps eight years ahead to portray the aftermath of what is referred to as “8/11.” By this point there have been three Gulf Wars (or maybe just one continuous one, decades long) and American Muslims, blamed for 8/11 even though its cause has never been determined, have been interned on former Indian reservations and decimated by domestic drones.
But most of the novel takes place in an upscale suburban enclave in Northern California, where an adolescent boy dreams of a big sister his parents insist never existed, and his 70-year-old neighbor, a Gulf veteran, hopes to make amends for terrible deeds by adopting a Muslim orphan. Seemingly unimportant events – a neighborhood pool party, an awkward first kiss – add to cascades of enormous consequences.
The title of the novel may refer more to its feverish texture than to any incident within it. Its message is that our lives are far more fragile than, for the sake of our own sanity, we let ourselves believe, and that our daily choices are droplets that merge into titanic tides of circumstance than can sweep us away at any moment, despite our noblest intentions.