“I thought this book would give me some insight into the heroes who have given all of us so much recently,” reads one Amazon review of my novel, Holding Fire. “Instead, it is homo-erotica.”
Another on the Barnes & Noble website proclaims, “Wald does a huge disservice to firefighters by indulging her own personal fetishes . . . she should stick with the soft-core literary porn of her past and not try and hawk these wares in light of the recent tragedy.”
When I wrote the book, a fictional account of three firefighters and their intimate relationships, I knew it wouldn’t please everyone. But the writing was done long before September 11th, when firefighters became more than heroes:
they became symbols of American purity, supermen instead of men. My detractors’ particular brand of righteous rage is a wry irony to me. Over the past seven years, whenever I mentioned that I was writing a book about firemen, people responded with relentless innuendo. “I guess you like their big hoses,” was a recurrent comment. Another was, “I bet you’ve slid down your share of their poles.” It was as if no one could consider firemen apart from the almost exaggerated sexuality we invest them with, or the hold they have on our romantic imagination.
Of course, the allure of firemen is formidable and this was true even before the tragic events of September 11th. Most women have an unapologetic fascination with them; most men can remember a boyhood dream of becoming one. And their appeal to our fantasies isn’t hard to understand. Firemen are necessarily in great shape. They stay young longer than most men as a rule perenially fit and active, living that boyhood dream, inured to the constant pranks and practical jokes that are a staple of firehouse life. And of course there is also their heroism. Firemen are the modern-day knights in sooty armor. They wear boots and carry axes. They scale buildings to rescue damsels in distress. Their implicit and literal promise to every one of us is: I would die for you. Their physicality, their vitality, their chivalry in a word, their sex appeal is an inextricable part of who they are and the work they do.
Holding Fire is therefore an erotically charged book. It contains some explicit sex, including a scene in which a stripper acts out a rape fantasy with a fireman, and another where she does him with a strap-on. The story’s central firefighter has a long-time liaison with a gay male companion, as well as a past as a male hustler. As in any intensely male world be it football or certain branches of the military or prison the firefighting arena has its share of homoerotic energy, and Holding Fire certainly reflects that as well.
In short, it was not intended as the poster book for the fallen firefighters of the World Trade Center attack. However, in an eerie twist of fate, Holding Fire which had shipped to stores well before September 11th appeared on shelves the very day of the Twin Towers’ collapse. And while the timing inspired an attention to the book that it otherwise might never have received, it also created a kind of expectation I never could have anticipated: the expectation that it would conform to the current public image of firefighters, who have by now, in the minds of society, ossifed into stereotypical sainthood.
But I have no regrets about the novel’s content. During my years of intimacy with a few different firefighters, it became clear to me that their sexuality informed every aspect of their working relationships: with other firemen, with the work of firefighting, and even with fire itself. It didn’t seem possible to divest them of their sexuality, and I didn’t want to.
The first fireman I dated seriously I’ll call him Rex was a hunter, fisherman, all-around gamesman and serious womanizer. I once spent a weekend, against my better judgment, at his mountain house. This guy is after one thing only, I was telling myself, and he’ll be on his best behavior only until he gets it. Outside his window, two deer were skittishly feeding on a salt lick. At every rustle of the branches or snap of a twig, they would startle, look up in alarm, poised for flight.
“Can you imagine leading such a paranoid life?” asked Rex.
“I don’t have to imagine too hard,” I answered.
And indeed, later that night, naked and bent over his table which was covered with the pelt of some recently slain animal, it suddenly seemed more than apt that my hair was very nearly the same shade as the fur. As if he were reading my mind, I felt Rex’s hand at my neck, gathering my hair into a fist and using it to pull my head back. My glazed-over gaze met the glassy-eyed stare of the deer head mounted on his wall.
He was the most conquest-oriented man I ever dated. This was as true of his relationship with fire as it was of his other relationships. He seemed to regard it as just another wild element to conquer.
He was also someone who embodied whatever homoerotic energy might be inherent to firehouse culture. While he was hyper-masculine heavily muscled, fiercely macho, and as dedicated a skirt-chaser as they come I was struck by the ease and frequency with which he touched other men: putting an affectionate hand on their arms while making a point, tousling their hair, grabbing them in bear hugs, playfully pinching their butts. He talked about certain other legendary members of the fire department with something like puppy love. He showed me a photograph once, taken in his firehouse locker room: there was Rex and two other firemen in varying degrees of undress, all naked from the waist down, arms around each other and smiling. And I will never forget an anecdote involving another fireman, who was asleep in a housewatch chair with his mouth wide open. Rex walked up to him, pulled out his dick and, to the raucous laughter of the other men in the company, stuck the tip in the other guy’s mouth. (Moments like these just don’t seem to happen in the corporate world.)
On the subtler and more sublimated end of the spectrum, there was another fireman I’ll call him Henry with whom I was deeply in love. Henry understood, better than anyone I’ve been with before or since, my preoccupation with the themes of mastery and slavery. He understood that my interest had nothing to do with gratuitous pain or whips or chains; he understood that I was obsessed with the concept of service. He understood this because it was what his career was all about: dedicated, fastidious, selfless service. He agreed with my speculation that less than 5% of our sexuality is released in the bedroom, and that the rest of it gets poured out: in bars, on dance floors, while walking down the street, in conversations and flirtations, in desires and daydreams, and for some us in our work. For Henry, firefighting took precedence over everything else in life. Not unlike a nun or a monk, he had taken his own set of implicit vows, and signed on to certain personal deprivations. Although we tend to think of nuns and monks as people without sexual relationships, I would argue that nearly all of them have one central and highly sexual relationship with God. Henry volunteered to work every holiday around the calendar. He donated all the money from his awards and medals to charity. His romantic relationships were relatively few and far between, and none of them rivalled his absolute devotion to the department brotherhood. Henry never married, and it was commonly said that he was married to the fire department. While I wouldn’t disagree with that statement, I would take it further and say that Henry was married to God.
It was this wide-ranging sexual continuum from the most carnal to the very rarified that I attempted to capture in Holding Fire, and I stand by my statement that it is a tribute to firefighters. I don’t think that acknowledging the powerful and many-faceted sexuality of firemen is doing them a disservice, and I don’t believe that heroes are diminished by their humanity. If we are to be honest about the hands we place our lives in, we need to be honest about who they are: not fantasy lovers, nor cardboard saints, but passionate and complicated men, with a unique sexual culture all their own.
Click here to read an excerpt of Elissa Wald’s novel, Holding Fire.
Click here to buy Holding Fire.