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‘How to Set a Fire and Why’ review: Jesse Ball creates a teen girl narrator to rival Holden Caulfield

Jesse Ball, author of

Jesse Ball, author of "How to Set a Fire and Why." Photo Credit: Joe Lieske

HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY, by Jesse Ball. Pantheon, 283 pp., $24.95.

Jesse Ball is not an easy writer to pin down. On his single-page website, he describes himself as a “fabulist, absurdist” born in 1978 and lists dozens of works of verse and prose, published and unpublished, for almost every year since 1999. His 2015 novel “A Cure for Suicide” was an experimental dystopian fable longlisted for the National Book Award about a man relearning the world from scratch through a conversation with a mysterious woman.

With “How to Set a Fire and Why,” Ball takes a completely different tack, delivering a high-spirited, edgy coming-of-age novel with distinct YA crossover possibilities.

In 14-year-old Lucia Stanton, the putative author of the book, Ball has created a voice that echoes the beloved narrators of J.D. Salinger and John Green. But Lucia lives outside the middle-class world of Holden and Hazel, squatting in a garage with an elderly aunt after her father dies and her mother is sent to a mental institution under circumstances never revealed. As the story begins, Lucia is expelled from school for poking a guy in the neck with a pencil when he touches her father’s Zippo lighter.

With her tragic past, brilliant mind and subversive potential, Lucia could be thought of a young Lisbeth Salander, or a high-IQ, antiheroic Katniss Everdeen, but with a better sense of humor. “I believe a person such as myself can live off licorice,” she says, then adds, “Luckily, I have never had to demonstrate the truth of this claim.”

Her gift for predicting the future, which she explains has more to do with logical modeling than with supernatural powers, is documented in a black felt notebook titled “The Book of How Things Will Go.” One of the events she is very good at forecasting are her regular visits to her catatonic mother at the Home where she lives. Always, she takes the #12 bus, then the #8. Always, she finds her mother seated by the fish pond in a medical gown, and always, her mother fails to recognize her. Always, she follows the visit by taking the bus to the bowling alley, where bartender Helen, who used to be her baby sitter, pours her a drink.

Even under these numbing circumstances, Lucia’s lively mind keeps turning cartwheels. “The place has at least ten gazebos,” she says of the Home. “It seems like doctors think that gazebos are good for curing mental illness, because every asylum I have ever seen in reality (one) or in a film (five or six?) has gazebos everywhere.” And yet, she continues, a gazebo “is poorly made, it doesn’t provide any real shelter, and it is impossible to do any meaningful tasks inside of it. If a person is struggling to figure out the most basic rationales about life — is that the kind of place you want to stick them?”

At her new school, Lucia joins the Sonar Club, which is really the Arson Club, and soon she writes a pamphlet titled “How to Set a Fire and Why.” This extraordinary document offers a lyrical, practical, and ultimately profound explanation of its topic, with subheadings like “Joy of Fires,” “On Anger,” “On Accomplices,” and “Civilian or Military.” “The governments of the world would like very much for you to make the distinction between civilian and military targets. This is interesting because they do not make that distinction when they wage their class warfare upon us.”

You, like Lucia, can put two and two together. No good is going to come of this arson thing. Something’s got to burn.

This is perfect summer reading for cool kids of all ages. Move over, Holden.

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