It’s close to midnight at the South Florida newspaper where Alton works when he decides to take a break from writing his story and calls Wanda, an old Chicago friend whom he hasn’t spoken to in over a year, to see how she’s getting along. When Wanda’s daughter Corinne answers the phone, she doesn’t remember Alton and is wary of why he is calling.
Eventually Corinne informs him that her mother died quite some time ago, but that she left him a small package. If Alton wants to find out what is in the package, Corinne says he will have to come to Chicago to pick it up because that’s what her mother specified in writing on the package itself.
Soon after hanging up from Corinne, Alton calls a mutual friend who knew Wanda well to find out what she may know about what happened. What he discovers is that the woman whom he once loved to the point of distraction didn’t just die, she set herself on fire in her car then drove into an oncoming truck.
Why would she do it?
Trying to unravel not only why Wanda committed suicide (and why he may have been at least partially responsible) but why she felt compelled to leave him a mysterious farewell package more than 10 years after a much younger, much angrier, much more confused Alton had fled Chicago while there was still enough of him left to save is what prompts him to return there and retrace the steps of his considerably less stable past. In the process Alton is forced to confront a simmering lifelong internal race and class conflict that drew the Colorado native away from the assured comforts provided by the protected environment of a respected upper middle class black family to Chicago’s South Side, the tangled emotional web of a sharp-edged ex-prostitute, and a bitter, broken down hustler Alton ‘hires’ to wreak havoc in Wanda’s life as recompense for a perceived slight.
For reasons Alton has never been willing to face he has always felt compelled to prove his blackness, but only after allowing his racial identity to be defined by others whom he has viewed as more authentically black than himself. An elusive pursuit of a musical and writing career leads him down unexpected self-exploratory alleys and back roads that sometimes lead to an uncomfortable and unintended exploration of internal sexual conflicts as well. But the harder he struggles to define his specific place in the world, the more blurred those boundaries become.
At its heart, “Fire and Wanda” is a dual mystery; the mystery behind a heartbroken ex-prostitute’s suicide and the mystery of a young man’s fractured identity. In America you can be anybody you want to be, and living a lie is only a lie if you believe the truth.
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