Hero for our times

The Broken Places

Susan Perabo <em>Bloomsbury, 254pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 074755773X

Heroism is dangerous stuff. It explodes dazzling and unpremeditated, and can have devastating effects on those flashlit by its sudden glow. Public acts of physical courage have a peculiar and irreversible alchemy. We admire - even love - somebody who risks their life for others. When New York's most decorated fire chief, Ray Downey, died trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center, his son told ABC News that his dad had been "a star". His heroism had spun him out of our orbit and into one of infinity and fame. "Show me a hero," said F Scott Fitzgerald, "and I will write you a tragedy."

Heroism, firefighting, celebrity and spin are the precariously balanced themes of Susan Perabo's provocative first novel. The Broken Places was published in the United States in late 2000 - before American firefighters became the tragic heroes of 9/11 or the British public woke up to FBU soundbites sprinkled on their cornflakes. It's a complex morality tale told largely from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy whose father, Sonny, is fireman in the small Pennsylvania town of Casey. "In a suit and tie", Paul admits, his dad looks "unassuming, unthreatening, a man unaccustomed to danger". But he knows that in his turnout gear, his father has the profile of "a first-rate ass-kicker". Sonny's role as the town's dominant male is confirmed by his marriage to Laura, a serene ninth-grade algebra teacher and "the first full-blown sex fantasy of nearly every boy in Casey".

The action begins with a bang, a wail and a lie as the old Neidermeyer House collapses, the fire truck rolls and Paul tells his mother that he's popping out for bubblegum. He's not . . . he is on his bike and peddling towards the rubble in time to see Sonny rescue the neo-Nazi teenager trapped beneath. Ian Finch is a "goner": a no-good kid from a shag-pile-carpet family who was probably playing with pipe bombs anyway. Why should a man of Sonny's obvious worth and responsibilities risk his life to save that of a boy with a swastika tattooed across his back? Paul can't make up his mind, but Laura is definitely angry. She thinks she rescues more young people in a teaching week than Sonny will in his whole firefighting career. "Kiss the kitty for me," she mocks, when her husband goes to work.

His family may be equivocal, but the national media are all over the small-time fireman made good. Hell, they're gonna make a movie about him. Sonny and Ian are flown out to LA, where Sonny becomes a grotesque of his new role. When he's not lapping it up on set, he's drinking and smoking with his new Nazi friend. Paul is humiliated by his father's hollow bragging and frightened by his mother's smouldering resentment. A working-class hero is something to be all right, but where does that leave a working-class hero's wife and son? Unusually for a child protagonist, Paul begins as a popular "jock" and becomes more and more a radical outsider as his family and preconceptions unravel.

At its worst, The Broken Places is a little Oprah Book Club: Perabo has a tendency to overexplain character motivation and rather hammers home her own moral message. Ignore the final paragraph, in which she punctures the emotional intensity so sensitively built up, by comparing Sonny, Laura and Paul to blades of grass learning to stand after being "humbled" by rain. But in a time of so much dry and lazy fiction, Perabo's excited pace and upfront compassion hit you like a jet of water from a fireman's hose. You just have to lean into it.