BOOK REVIEW / How and why of old flames: 'Young Men and Fire' - Norman Maclean: University of Chicago Press, 15.95

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NORMAN MACLEAN was a teacher of English at the University of Chicago who became famous in retirement when he published A River Runs Through It. Cast as a memoir of his brother and as a rumination on that most literary of outdoor arts - dry fly-fishing - this tautly lyrical novella became a cult classic, selling more than half a million copies. Its translation into a movie by Robert Redford will doubtless sell a million more.

Maclean's sprawling second book, written like a novel but currently in the US non-fiction bestseller list, describes the how and why of a terrible fire. In August 1949, 13 firefighters died in Mann Gulch, Montana, burned to death by a 'blow-up' that eventually incinerated several thousand acres. The foreman of the crew - Wag Dodge - survived by lighting his own fire just as the larger flames were about to reach him. Lying face down, he sucked at the single foot of oxygen hovering just above the ground as the main fire swerved around his smaller flames. Fatally, but hardly surprisingly, the rest of the crew ignored his shouted orders to join him and (apart from two survivors whom Maclean later met) were killed running for their lives up a 76-degree slope in 100-degree heat. It was as if the captain of the Titanic had escaped by making his own iceberg.

How the fire engulfed its victims forms the gripping early part of this book. The why of the fire is less interesting. As a teacher Maclean was a specialist in the theory of tragedy, but he seems unable to accept the ultimately unfathomable core of the tragedy he explores. Obsessed with finding some redemptive point in what were manifestly pointless deaths, he loses himself in researching the scientific basis of the fire - wind speeds, soil types, the rate of the fire's 'spread in our ponderosa pine needle fuel beds' - and loses touch with what first impelled him.

Yet in much of this posthumous work - especially its vivid account of the fire's spread and its poignant depiction of the victims - we find the emotional power that pervades A River Runs Through It. If not a classic like its predecessor, Young Men and Fire none the less reveals again Norman Maclean's extraordinary late creativity.