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Fire in the flesh

Wendy Smith is a New York-based critic and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

The intricate bonds that link human beings have been a concern of Andrea Barrett’s ever since her debut novel, “Lucid Stars,” in 1993. As she broadened her fictional canvas to examine scientific endeavor in “Ship Fever,” “Voyage of the Narwhal” and “Servants of the Map,” the delicate thread of related characters woven through all three reiterated this theme of personal connection. She brings an intriguing twist to it in her new novel, which alludes to people and stories from previous books -- though there’s no need to catch those references to appreciate her subtle, thoughtful work here.

“The Air We Breathe” chronicles a year at the Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Tuberculosis through the eyes of a group of patients and others that begins to meet weekly in the fall of 1916 to “exchange of work experience and other knowledge.” Cut off from their families, the patients -- many of them immigrants viewed with suspicion by native-born Americans -- create a close-knit, gossipy community designed to at least temporarily replace the loved ones left behind. (It’s telling that they call the couples who form at Tamarack State “cousins” rather than sweethearts.) The plot is driven by two self-absorbed characters who bring disaster to the Adirondacks sanatorium, but the book’s essential concern is collective life. Like a family, a community is the source of both solace and conflict, a place where the nature of your commitment to others is tested.

It’s slightly startling to be addressed by the collective narrator “we,” instead of the intimate “I” or omniscient third-person narrator of most fiction, but readers may not notice at first Barrett’s modern Greek chorus relating the events. Initially, the drama and its principal actors are preeminent: Leo, an endearing new patient, and Eudora, a cheerful, kindhearted ward maid, get entangled in the machinations of Miles and Naomi, a pair of destructive narcissists. The Wednesday afternoon meetings are Miles’ idea, although he’s not a patient. It’s a public facility for the poor; Miles, owner of a Pennsylvania cement plant, boards at a nearby cottage run by Naomi’s mother that caters to wealthy consumptives who can afford private doctors and accommodations. Miles, however, is just as bored as his state-subsidized counterparts by the treatment regimen of huge meals and enforced rest.

"[W]e’ll teach each other, thereby widening our horizons,” Miles declares at the first meeting. He then launches into a disquisition on paleontology, speaking for six sessions to restless group members who keep coming because it’s their one chance to socialize outside the sanatorium’s rigid constraints. Miles’ chief goal is to impress Naomi, whom he pays to drive him to the meetings and invites to participate with her friend Eudora. Naomi, meanwhile, sketches portrait after portrait of Leo, but the Russian immigrant has eyes only for Eudora.

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When Miles finally yields to other speakers, the group reconnects to the world beyond the sanatorium. A large cast of characters comes to vivid life: Ephraim, Leo’s roommate, relates his experiences on an upstate New York apple farm, run as a commune with fellow Eastern European immigrants. He has his listeners rearrange their rows of chairs into an arc, recalling the “learning circles” that many of them formed upon arrival in America in an effort to ameliorate their hardscrabble new existence. A dignified, compassionate Dr. Petrie talks about his grim visit to a European battlefield to treat victims of German poison gas attacks. Irene, who runs the X-ray lab, explains Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“German science is nothing to be proud of, these days,” sniffs Miles, whose beloved young friend has just been killed in France as America enters World War I. Miles joins a vigilante committee spying on the area’s foreign-born residents and reporting anyone it suspects of “unpatriotic” speech or actions.

“It’s just -- science,” Irene retorts, impatient with Miles’ jingoism. She has dedicated her life to science; her mutilated hands are cancer-ridden from unshielded work with radiation, but she has no regrets: "[A]fterwards, something I’d made [was] glowing in the dark.”

Irene gives diligent, capable Eudora a glimpse of truly satisfying labor, teaching her to use the X-ray equipment. She loans chemistry books to Leo, who was a student in Russia but has had only backbreaking, unskilled jobs in America. Eudora, wrapped up in the skills she’s discovering, doesn’t grasp the extent of Naomi’s obsession with Leo. The needy, unhappy young woman has latched onto him as her ticket out of a stifling provincial life and ignores each clear indication that he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. Miles, for his part, refuses to see that Naomi isn’t interested in a man twice her age.

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It’s evident to these two self-deluders that Leo and Eudora are growing closer. Leo persuades Eudora to meet him at the sanatorium’s movie night -- a screening of battle footage instead of the promised “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” thanks to Miles. Seeing Leo take Eudora’s hand, Naomi hysterically rushes from the room, then vanishes from town with money stolen from her mother and Miles. Nearly simultaneously, a fire breaks out that kills three sanatorium patients. Miles is sure it’s war-related sabotage. When a parade of witnesses offers the unwelcome information that Naomi was pursuing Leo, Miles seizes on the Russian immigrant as a suspect. Certain facts seem to bolster Miles’ case, and the confused patients don’t know what to think.

Alert readers will have deduced how the fire started long before the characters figure it out. This may be a rare instance of clumsy plotting from a normally deft technician or it may be that Barrett intends the culprit to be obvious. Miles’ accusations against Leo test the moral resolve of everyone at Tamarack, patients and staff alike, and not everyone passes the test. In the final chapters, the author brings to the foreground the collective narrator, who until now has served as an essential backdrop. She allows the murmuring voices of those who have watched and judged the main characters to swell into a single epiphany of regret and contrition. "[W]e could have learned what we needed about the world and the war simply by observing our own actions and desires,” the narrator realizes.

Such knowledge comes fearfully late in this rueful Bildungsroman, which boldly replaces the conventional saga of a callow youth’s education with the drama of a group of fallible adults who, buffeted by ugly political winds unloosed by a far-off war, betray their best instincts but are mature enough to eventually acknowledge their mistake. Barrett draws no facile parallels, but American readers will find uncomfortable contemporary resonance in her historical novel. *


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