Anatomy Of A Fire

Norman Maclean got many good reviews for "A River Runs Through It," but none pleased him more than the letters he got from fishermen. "There's no bastards in the world who like to argue more than fishermen," he once said, "and not one of them corrected me on anything. That is my idea of a good review."

That same factual integrity characterizes Maclean's second book, the recently published Young Man and Fire (University of Chicago. $19.95). A painstaking nonfiction account of the events of Aug. 5, 1949, when 13 of 16 U.S. Forest Service smoke jumpers died fighting a Montana forest fire, the book details how "blowup" fires can explode with such speed and heat that brave young men in the best shape cannot hope to outrun them. The book is an investigation, something like a mystery novel, with Maclean as the detective who can't stop until he has learned how three men made decisions that saved their lives while 13 others erred fatally. It is a heartfelt book. Maclean himself fought fires for the Forest Service as a youth, and his account of the tragedy that engulfed an elite crew of parachuting firemen is as sympathetic as it is informed.

It was almost by accident that Maclean became a writer. On his retirement as an English professor at the University of Chicago, his children urged him to write down the stories he'd told them over the years about growing up in the Montana woods. The results, two novellas and a short story, were published in 1976 as "A River Runs Through It." The only fiction ever published by the University of Chicago Press, the book has sold more than 500,000 copies.

When Maclean died two years ago at 87, he left the manuscript of "Young Men and Fire" unfinished, but in a sense this is a blessing. Unlike his first book ' this one isn't polished and mortised to a fare-thee-well. It is full of clumsy digressions and false trails. But it's this awkwardness that gives the book a strange beauty, a sense of eavesdropping on a smart old man talking to himself while he sifts through ashes and bones, searching for what they can tell him about life and death. A few years ago Maclean told an interviewer, "I have accomplished what I set out to do through writing. I have put the pieces of myself together ... I have lived a blessed life." This compelling book confirms that judgment.