Given the range of subjects covered in Joni Tevis’ essay collection, “The World Is on Fire,” what may be most surprising about it is how neatly it comes together.
Tevis’ vision is bold: Her work encompasses apocalyptic visions from the Book of Revelations to the atomic tests of the 1940s and 1950s, and along the way she incorporates doomed musicians such as Buddy Holly and Liberace, trips to the geographical vastness of Alaska and musings on defunct industries, economic anxiety and demolition derbies.
These essays were initially published in a host of publications, including Oxford American and Ecotone, but they fit together seamlessly here. It’s a chronicle of obsessions societal and personal, and the end result is magnificently compelling.
“The World Is on Fire” takes its title (and its epigraph) from Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” — and, as in Anderson’s book, she is able to find the larger societal and cultural references from the minutiae of a single building or a single life.
Tevis also has an eye for memorable images: A visit to the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas yields a series of descriptions of the singer’s outfits that are surreal and moving; elsewhere, she juxtaposes snowflakes, coins and fallout from atomic testing. The atomic work that recurs as an image here makes this a candidate for a literary double bill with Chris Abani’s “The Secret History of Las Vegas,” which wrestles with some of the same themes in fictional form.
There’s a sense of economic anxiety that runs throughout the book: In an early essay on the Sarah Winchester House, Tevis describes the occasion of her visit there with her husband, and of the fears that emerged from both being between jobs. Her musings on a trip to North Dakota in search of ghost towns yields a line that hits home on a number of levels: “The line between living and ghost wasn’t always obvious.”
At times, Tevis deals with the historical, whether it’s the island where the Book of Revelation was written or a space where a thriving business used to be. At others, she incorporates her own history, juxtaposing intensely personal moments from her life (past and present) with the geographies and bleak histories she covers.
“I yearn to do good work that will last. I see this in other people and in these rituals,” Tevis writes halfway through the book. And it’s through the meticulous documentation of rituals and good work that she’s been able to achieve an impressive accomplishment, finding resonant connections between seemingly disparate things and giving us an insightful glimpse into her life in the process.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.