For somebody who writes with a sledgehammer, Daniel Allen Cox is pretty damned eloquent. The Montreal author’s second novel, Krakow Melt, is rampage on paper. But for a few distractions, it scorches its way through 151 pages and, like all good fires, leaves a smoldering afterglow.
Seen through the eyes of Radek Tomaszewski – twenty-five, bisexual, artistic, and obsessed with fire – is Poland, 2005. The stranglehold of the Soviet Union is long gone but a culture of entrenched, often violent homophobia excludes the country’s gays from the freedom the revolution purports to have won. Armed with imagination, audacity and fire, and along with Dorota – a friend, a lover, a comrade – Radek goes to war.
Cox casts Radek from a mold of complexities and contradictions, creating an authentic character with label-proof skin. He’s tough and he’s scared. He’s brazen and he’s shy. He calls his fight a “war of visibility” but has a history of darkened boiler room sexual encounters. He builds maquettes of cities with devastating fires in their pasts and burns them all over again in galleries, yet when asked about his influences he eschews other miniaturists and cites Pink Floyd’s The Wall as “all you need to know about building and tearing down.”
While Radek is waging war with Polish society, he’s also fighting an internal battle. His Stockholm syndrome-like relationship with fire is what propels and, simultaneously, threatens to destroy him, as it did his house as a child. Horror and heartbreak don’t get much more beautifully written than in Cox’s rendering of six-year old Radek’s tragic introduction to fire. Hold your breath and try not to inhale the smoke.
A few of Cox’s chapters occur beyond the confines of Radek and Dorota’s principal story: a medical log written by a closeted gay surgeon tending to the ailing Pope John Paul II, website text from a manufacturer of fire-prevention material, and blow-by-blow descriptions of historical YouTube videos. While these sequences provide context – particularly when they juxtapose Poland’s struggle for freedom and its vicious societal homophobia – they lack the energy that the rest of the book is so thick with. A scene occurring on a screen does not a misstep automatically make, however. To the contrary, when Radek and Dorota carry out a political Easter Monday prank, Cox recounts the incident through the transcript of a television news report, and we are right there with the characters.
Radek and Dorota are a gem of a pair. Their relationship is simultaneously profound and playful, steeped in sexual tension; early on, he describes her as “the ideal warrior: knowledgeable, fearless, an ass of sculpted glass. I realized on the spot that we could accomplish great things together, as long as I didn’t ruin it by requesting a blowjob.”
Krakow Melt is, like Radek, brash, wild, and inventive. Daniel Allen Cox’s real accomplishment, however, is his ability to use these elements – his sledgehammer side – not for shock value alone but to enhance a book that, at its core, possesses a lingering significance. In every revolution there are casualties, those who never taste the triumph they contributed to. When you want to destroy something, you run the risk of destroying yourself. The fire, however, is beautiful while it burns.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Spring Training” won first prize in the 5th Annual Geist Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. He is currently writing a novel called With the Lights Out.