Book Review: Fire Exit by Morgan Talty

June 4, 2024

colonialism. definition: turning bodies into cages that no one has the keys for.

Billy-Ray Belcourt, Colonialism: A Love Story

After the publication of Morgan Talty’s short story collection, Night of the Living Rez, the author already had his next book ready. In an interview with Brad Listi on the Otherppl podcast, he said his next novel, Fire Exit, “focuses on blood quantum, which is a way that tribes use to keep track of citizenship or membership. Really it’s just a colonial tool that’s been used as a form of genocide.” A powerful statement, but is he playing with *ahem* fire, in giving Fire Exit a white protagonist? It brings to mind when reviewers claimed Toni Morrison couldn’t be a serious writer without including white people prominently in her narratives: as though black people’s “lives have no meaning and no depth, without the white gaze.” Is the white gaze dominant in Fire Exit? It’s hard to argue against it. But to understand the moral weight of that question, we have to answer whether this book is interested in racial identity, tribal identity or both. That tension gives Fire Exit a unique sense of urgency, relating a very human story that questions how much of a role race plays in Native American identity, culture and family. This book wasn’t made to put all those questions to rest once and for all. But Talty clearly wrote it from a place of love, the complicated type that can be equally beautiful and confusing, but strives to be healing.

The narrator, Charles, is a white man who was raised by his mother, Louise, and her Native husband, Fredrick on the Penobscot reservation. At eighteen Charles has to leave because he can’t be a member of the tribe. He accepts it. That isn’t the complication. Charles later has a child, Elizabeth, with Mary. Mary just meets the Penobscot blood quantum requirements; but Elizabeth wouldn’t, because of Charles. So Mary ends their relationship and pretends that Elizabeth is the child of another tribal member, increasing her recorded percentage of Penobscot blood. Charles accepts this arrangement despite wanting a family with Mary. But, decades later, when he discovers Elizabeth is suffering from depression, a condition she shares with Louise, the desire to tell her the truth consumes him.

Wanting to connect with his daughter brings Charles closer to his ailing mother, Louise. Though they’d had an estranged relationship since Fredrick’s death, her deteriorating dementia forces Charles to confront questions about family and identity that he’d previously ignored. For example, his white friend Bobby occasionally helps take care of Louise, but a lot of their conversations involve Charles correcting stories Bobby’s heard about the Penobscot (specifically Charles’s family). When Bobby calls him from a casino in Connecticut and says, “Why can’t our Indians up there have a casino like this?” Charles has to acknowledge that Bobby sees no difference in their identities.

At first it was the “our” part of his sentence that bothered me, the way he laid claim. After we hung up and I had more time to think about it, I started to wonder about the possibility that I was just upset that he didn’t say, “Why can’t you Indians up there have a casino like this one?

Emotional and biological realities lead Charles to identify alternately with both white and Penobscot, but also neither. He’s well aware that this could make him sound like a pretendian.

There’s nothing strange about a white person wishing to be Indian. It’s comical, if anything. And white people saying they’re Indian happens all the time, and it’s laughed at by Native people. “Oh yeah, your great-great-grandmother was an Indian princess? Boy, here’s your per capita then.” And I get it. I do. I’m not skeejin–not Native–and I can’t say with any pride that I’m “Panawahpskewi” because I contain no blood connecting me to ancestors long gone. But I feel that I am, or that I have a stake in their experience.

Identity isn’t completely independent of how we’re perceived. And this is what makes Charles’s felt and lived identity particularly difficult to pin down. Bobby and Charles’s Penobscot friends all agree that he’s white. Charles agrees as well. But he’s troubled by the idea that this somehow means he has more ties to Bobby than to the tribe. His childhood, education and family all connect him to the Penobscot. Yet everyone, white and Native, assumes that white culture and identity will dominate his understanding of himself; that it will, well, colonize any space in his personal culture that’s Penobscot. They’re wrong. It doesn’t. However, these identities placed in opposition to each other chip away at his understanding of himself. Complicating it further is the fear of being seen as yet another white person trying to take Native Americans’ identity away from them. It’s no wonder Charles starts to have “strange existential thoughts, like [he] wasn’t really real.”

Only one person calmed Charles’s existential crisis: Fredrick. “It was Fredrick’s love that made me feel Native. He loved me so much that I was, and still am, convinced that I was from him, part of him, part of what he was part of.” Charles’s descriptions of family are particularly moving when talking about Fredrick. It’s a hymn to the impact of a father’s love. But those ties to Fredrick complicate his desire to tell Elizabeth the truth about her conception.

And it seemed here, at least in my thinking, that to say blood doesn’t matter was to let her go, to tell her that she was not mine, that we had no connection. And while all of that might have been true, it was all untrue […] blood is messy, and it stains in ways that are hard to clean, especially if that stain can’t be seen but we know it is there.

Would Charles cause a similar existential crisis in Elizabeth by telling her about her origins? Perhaps, but what if Elizabeth’s problems are inherited from Charles’s mother? Is that knowledge more valuable than the certainty of Penobscot citizenship? Would she have to leave the reservation? Give up her job? To tell or not to tell. To be or not to be. Both paths have serious consequences.

This novel deals with a delicate subject and the deliberate care with which Talty wrote it shows in his stylistic choices. Writing in first person, past tense narration gives the text the feeling of a journal or a confession. As it’s written, Fire Exit reads like a glimpse into Charles’s deepest thoughts to reveal a secret life. Third person narration wouldn’t feel nearly as immediate and, counterintuitively, that need for immediacy would be poorly served by present tense narration as well. Present tense would perhaps make the action feel closer; but Charles’s deeper reflections—the kind that are articulated after slow, deliberate thought—would sound unnatural. Like the author was possessing the character to get on their pulpit and preach.

I’d love to know if Talty had specific readers in mind while writing Fire Exit. It certainly deserves the largest audience possible. But it also felt very personal to this reviewer. As a white person who was adopted by his Choctaw mother, I found this novel extremely moving. Though representation of white people is nothing unusual, this is a rare book. Reading such a delicate, honest novel centered around an identity so close to home brought me to tears more than once and it’s a story I’ll be carrying in my thoughts for a long time.

Publisher: Tin House

Publication date: June 4, 2024

Reviewed by David Lewis



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