American Fallout: “Not on Fire, But Burning” by Greg Hrbek

hrbekOriginally published in Bookpage.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Greg Hrbek‘s fascinating, inventive second novel imagines how America would change if someone dropped an atomic bomb on San Francisco, and, in the absence of any real evidence, the U.S. government held Islamic terrorists accountable.

In a heart-stopping opening scene, college sophomore Skyler Wakefield is babysitting a 5-year-old boy when she looks out the window to see “a star falling in bright daylight” hit the Golden Gate Bridge before a shockwave tears through the house. Skyler survives just long enough to carry the toddler to a hospital, but succumbs to radiation poisoning a few hours later after a tearful phone call with her parents. Eight years later, we meet Skyler’s 12-year-old brother, Dorian, who’s been suspended from school for writing an obscenity on the wall of a mosque bathroom. In the wake of the attack, Dorian lives in a drastically different America. Nuclear fallout has quickened climate change, borders have been redrawn into provinces and territories, and the U.S. government has corralled thousands of Muslims onto old Native American reservations. However, Dorian’s mother and father have no memory of his older sister, Skyler. Dorian was only 4 when she died in the attack, but he has recurring, detailed, seemingly clairvoyant dreams about her. Meanwhile, an elderly veteran across the street, William Banfelder, adopts an orphaned Muslim boy named Karim from the Dakota Territory with a dangerous secret.

It’s a high-concept premise that could easily veer into cliché, but Hrbek delivers a captivating story filled with nuance. Every chapter brings a surprise, and Hrbek has real knack for stunning, unforgettable images and turns of phrase. Not on Fire, But Burning boldly questions America’s moral standing since 9/11, and brings to life the horrific consequences of ignorance, fear and hate.


Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek (Melville House)


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