Sunday, July 29, 2018

Robert W. Fieseler's "Tinderbox"

Robert W. Fieseler is a journalist and nonfiction author who currently resides in Boston. He graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, and reported the following:
My book Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation is testament of a tragedy: a notoriously unsolved arson fire at a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans. This intentionally set blaze, which burned for less than 20 minutes, claimed 32 lives and is still the deadliest fire on record in city history, yet no culprit was ever charged or publicly named. Tinderbox explores themes of willful ignorance, in an era when homosexuality carried stigma, and the consequences of “closeting” the truth.

Imagine my shock when I turned to page 99 and found the start of Chapter 6, entitled “Call for Aid,” a turning point in the book—when leaders of a nascent national movement for gay rights, called Gay Liberation, are alerted to the destruction of the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans. To contrast their activism, Chapter 6 begins with a scene of officiousness, when city workers enter the burned out bar and commence with separating heaps of corpses and tagging physical evidence.

I’ve been criticized for my depictions here, because I choose to detail not just a bureaucracy’s unceremonious approach to death but also to note the stomach-churning realities of being burned alive, which is neither glamorizing nor glorifying to the deceased. I had to decide in this page what would be the greater indignity: showing the gravity of what happened or merely implying it. Essentially, do I zoom into the unspeakable, or do I blur away? And who would I be helping, if I chose either?

So often, storytellers recall the dead as if they were otherworldly while they lived and elevate them with impossible clichés: “He never told a lie,” “She always had a kind word.” These recollections build into hagiography, or heroic mythmaking, which isn’t the purpose of history.

I decided that gore matters if it’s real, that the unvarnished truth offered greater respect to men who were murdered in this way. This isn’t an action movie or a parable of saints. The desecration of a human body matters, objectively, and must matter, if we are to call ourselves a society. The graver injustice, I resolved, would be denying such desecration to appeal to the tastes of some inner censor or a prudish reader, who (if I’ve done anything close to my job) by page 99 should be more committed to the victims’ fates:
Chapter 6

Call for Aid

Night—June 24, 1973

Coroner Carl Rabin crossed the threshold of the Up Stairs Lounge. The structure had cooled enough by then for him to safely enter the second floor and pronounce those who had not been able to flee dead. His go-ahead signaled police photographers and coroner’s assistants to spring to their work. Together, the staff combed the premises to make a meticulous record of where everyone and everything was positioned. They commenced the gruesome process of finding and tagging bones beneath layers of human cremains. “The charred, still-oozing remains filled the air with a stench difficult to bear,” noted the States-Item.

Because the electricity was out, firemen shined klieg lights up from the street. As they noted, none of the bar’s supposed safety features had worked. The fire-rated front door, rigged to close on a spring, had crumpled on contact with heat, as if patently defective. Several Exit signs, supposedly connected to an emergency power system, had not functioned. While measuring the bar’s stairwell, Major Henry Morris discovered an item of interest, an empty seven-ounce can of Ronsonol lighter fluid.
Visit Robert W. Fieseler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue