Books:Angels With Dirty Faces

In "Firehouse" (Hyperion), David Halberstam looks at the men of Engine Co. 40 and Ladder Co. 35, who work out of a firehouse at West 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. On September 11, 2001, two rigs with 13 men aboard responded when planes hit the World Trade Center. Only one man survived--and he wound up with a broken neck. "Firehouse" portrays those men, at home and on the job, and we get to know them well. We know that Jimmy Giberson's feet were so big his boots came one to a box. Mike D'Auria was seriously into tattoos, but his tattoos were seriously different: on one arm he sported the Serenity Prayer, on the other a portrait of Saint Anthony, the patron of lost things. And like so many of his co-workers, D'Auria came from a family of firefighters--nine on his mother's side alone. Firefighting is still mostly male--and mostly white--and, to a surprising degree, a family affair, with sons following fathers and, quite often, grandfathers, into the firehouse. As Halberstam writes in this always clear-eyed but affecting group portrait, it's "as close to a hermetically sealed world as you are likely to find in contemporary America."

"Firehouse" is one of at least four books out now about the firefighters at Ground Zero. Dennis Smith's excellent "Report From Ground Zero" (Viking) sat on the best-seller list all spring. This week "Last Man Down" (Berkley), Battalion Commander Richard Picciotto's first-person account of his experience on September 11, jumped on the list. And then there is "Brotherhood" (Ogilvy & Mather/American Express), a heartbreaking photo book of the New York firehouses that lost men that day. But books on September 11 account for only a fraction of the nonfiction--and fiction--appearing now or later this summer about fires and firefighting. The best of the lot is Sean Flynn's "3000 Degrees" (Warner), in which he expands--more nail-biting!--on his prize-winning Esquire article about a horrific 1999 fire in a Worchester, Mass., cold-storage plant that took the lives of six firefighters. In "Firefighter" (Mountain Movers Press), Herman Williams Jr. explains how he became one of the nation's first African-American firefighters. But the prize for the strangest "first" goes to Suzanne Chazin, surely the first mystery novelist to build a series around a fire marshal: "Flashover" (Putnam), just out, is the second installment.

There's even a firefighting book for people who've had it with the sanctification of firefighters. Joseph Wambaugh's "Fire Lover" (Morrow) is a nutty and tragic true-crime tale of a Glendale, Calif., arson inspector who turned out to be a pyromaniac responsible for the deaths of four people and millions in property damage. Like all of Wambaugh's best books, this story concentrates on what happens when a cop or a firefighter--a good firefighter in this case--lets his work become an obsession and then a mania.

A weird blend of terror and fascination, repulsion and attraction, draws us to fire, and to books about fire. But what held my attention in these books was the work of the men who fought them. Over and over, you hear the same refrain in these stories: everybody loves a fireman. And what's not to love? They save the lives of strangers and douse fires. Firefighting is one of those jobs that are essentially irony-free. In a world where heroes are in chronic short supply, firemen risk their lives to save total strangers. Just try looking for the smart-aleck take on that fact. And it is a happy world. As one man tells Halberstam, "We like doing it, like the life, because we're never ashamed of what we do."