The basic plot of A Chemical Fire by Brian Martinez is that this guy, John, is your average school teacher. He narrowly survives a hold up, then when going back to the police station the next day to give his statement, he gets creamed in a hit and run right in front of the police department.
During the course of his recovery, he becomes addicted to prescription painkillers. And as he struggles to maintain his addition and his life, things slowly go pear-shaped, resulting in an arson case. To make a long story short, he possible od’s the day of his court case because he snorts heroine in the back of a police cruiser, and when he does, the world burns, for everyone except him and three other people.
The world is populated by Victims, zombie like creatures that want to eat the living but who looked like they have been burned to death, and these four very fucked up people.
At the very beginning, I did have a moment of, “Did he overdose?” But I quickly got embroiled in the story. You wouldn’t think that John would become such a sympathetic character, but as you meet the other three people involved, his problems sort of become the least worrying. Adena is an anorexic dietician, Janet is a drug dealer/necrophiliac, Daniel is a murderer/hoarder/hatemonger.
You quickly come to see that Adena, Daniel and Janet are all connected to each other, just as they are all connected to John in some way — a really twisted web of denial and enablement that just keeps chugging down the tracks as long as John can find a vehicle to hot wire and the right drugs to drown out his pain. As the plot moves ahead, I came to realize three things after John reaches the Hoover Dam.
- It really doesn’t matter if John overdosed in the police car.
- This book is less about the world as we know it, and more about the world according to John.
- The entire book seems to be Martinez’s way of saying, “Addiction is always the end of the world for someone.”
Now, let me explain why I think this is true. The easiest point here is the last one. Addiction is a terrible thing that destroys lives. Using a version of the zombie apocalypse to talk about that, well, it is an applicable theme because of point number two.
People who have addictions can rarely see how their lifestyle affects others. By the time a person gets to the point of snorting heroine in a car, that person has probably already done something she or he has sworn to never do. I would say that is one way to destroy, if not your world, then your sense of self.
Now that first point — it really doesn’t matter if John overdosed in the police car. Because if he did, and all of this is in his head, then becoming Death is still destroying his world — or at least the way he experiences it — his brain. Or if he did overdose in the police car, and the burning of the world was caused by it, then he is still Death, and he will destroy the world he lives in.
Either way, he has released the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is up to the reader to decide if limiting the horsemen to the world in John’s head makes for a better read, or to take the novel word for word. Personally, I think it might be some of both, considering what we hear people whispering as John comes out of his rages.