“You are who you are, even if you don’t know it,” the narrator of Morgan Talty’s “Fire Exit” observes in the novel’s opening pages. That protagonist, Charles Lamosway, wrestles with questions of inheritance, family, identity and belonging throughout Talty’s ambitious new work, personalizing the repercussions of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and the “blood quantum” policy used to measure Indigenous identity.

Charles lives in the fictional Maine town of Overton, directly across the river from the Penobscot Reservation. The setting will be familiar to the many fans of Talty’s lauded short story collection, “Night of the Living Rez.” In “Fire Exit,” Talty returns to the map he charted in his debut, hinting at a wide-ranging vision that has the potential to cross multiple books. Talty is working within a literary lineage of fictional settings based on real places and peopled by characters subject to urgent social, cultural and political pressures — think of the world-building of Louise Erdrich’s Ojibwe reservations and towns in North Dakota, or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

Charles is a working-class white man, a recovering alcoholic, who was raised by his white mother, Louise, and Penobscot stepfather, Fredrick. Because Louise “married in,” Charles was raised on the reservation, where Fredrick’s love created a sense of belonging and stability that buoyed Charles through Louise’s frequent episodes of severe clinical depression. Because Charles does not have Penobscot blood, when he came of age he had to move off the reservation. In the novel’s present, Charles is emotionally isolated, and obsessively watches the comings and goings of one particular family on the Penobscot land across the river:

“There’s nothing strange about a white person wishing to be Indian. It’s comical, if anything … I get it. I do. I’m not skeejin — not Native — and I can’t say with any pride that I’m “Panawahpskewi,” because I contain no blood connecting me to ancestors long gone. But I feel that I am, or that I have a stake in their experience … It was Fredrick’s love that made me feel Native. He loved me so much that I was, and still am, convinced that I was from him, part of him, part of what he was part of.”

Charles is fixated on the house across the river because it’s where Mary, his estranged childhood friend and former lover, lives. Mary gave birth to Charles’s daughter, Elizabeth, but asked her husband, Roger, to claim the girl as his biological child, ensuring that Elizabeth could be enrolled as a Penobscot citizen. Elizabeth has no clue about her relationship to Charles — and this torments him:

“We are made of stories and if we don’t know them — the ones that make us — how can we ever be fully realized? How can we ever be who we really are?”


These questions are tied to the blood quantum policy, a tool used by the U.S. government to dilute Indigenous cultural identity and gain more land; it has since been adopted by some tribes as a way to limit enrolled members. Talty aims to show how the policy can divide families and deprive people of a full understanding of the histories they carry. This is personal for Talty, a Penobscot citizen, who recently wrote an essay for Esquire about the bizarre reality of having a young son who is not officially counted as Penobscot because his blood percentage falls below the imposed requirement.

The novel’s tension derives from Charles’ thwarted desires, missteps and buried family secrets. He desperately wants Elizabeth, now in her late 20s, to know her history — in part so she knows  her biological grandmother, Louise, struggles with mental illness. When it becomes apparent that Elizabeth also suffers from clinical depression, he persists in his determination to tell her — in spite of the fact that everyone he floats the idea to warns against it.

The irony is that Charles’s observation that his daughter is who she is “even if she doesn’t know it” applies equally to himself. Charles does not know his own White father, and is so devoted to the memory of Fredrick that he shrinks from asking his mother about it. This elision is largely unconscious on Charles’ part, though it’s hinted at by his old friend, Gizos: a suggestion that Charles’ drive to be known by his daughter stems in part from a misdirected need to ameliorate a legacy of absentee fathers. Gizos, a gay man with a history of abuse by his father, has formed a new Native family in California with his husband and adopted child; like Charles, he’s drawn homeward, dutifully caring for elders who were less than stellar parents.

Charles is full of longing to be known, but time and again fails to broach thorny topics with those around him — and this, too, drives the novel’s energy: How did Fredrick die, and why does Charles fear that Louise secretly blames him? Will the gun that shows up on Page 3 make a reappearance, and who is most at risk if it does? (Hint: Talty is well versed in the narrative principle of Chekhov’s gun). Will Charles and his prickly, ailing mother reach a détente that could help them both heal before she fully slips into dementia? Will his friend Bobby, a darkly hilarious bringer of chaos, help or hinder Charles’ quest? And when Louise and Elizabeth cross paths while being treated for depression, will their meeting spark a conflagration? (The novel’s title, “Fire Exit,” resonates on multiple levels).

Because we spend the entire novel inside Charles’ head, our access to other characters is limited, making for a slower, ruminative read in the novel’s first half. When it unfolds, Talty’s gift for dialogue, action, tension, clashes and vivid first-person narration creates wonderful urgency and momentum. A scene in which Charles and others search for the missing Elizabeth during a nor’easter is indelible:

“I ran for so long, the cold getting colder, that I forgot what I was chasing. (Elizabeth)? Fredrick? Louise? Myself? I began to talk to nobody. Out here in the cold lay only trees and snow and snow and more snow up to my knees, my thighs. It went deep, as do most things if you look hard enough. My running turned to walking, then limping.”


Talty has proven he’s skilled at crafting first-person male narrators: smart, sympathetic men who are struggling and wounded, blinkered by their flaws and prone to royally screwing up, but with a palpable longing for meaningful connection.

The question of point of view is endlessly discussed in writing classes but not of much interest to most readers, so long as the writer delivers a good story. Yet, point of view is more than a craft choice — it evokes a world view, raising questions that ripple outward: Whose story is privileged here? Whose voice and motivations do we gain access to?

Because our understanding of the other characters is limited to Charles’ perspective, their motivations can be somewhat obscure. Particularly the nuances of Mary’s decision to cut him off from baby Elizabeth, and why she wouldn’t know more about Louise’s mental health since she was close to Charles in their youth. An emotional revelation from Gizos is ripe with potential for drama but comes out of left field. Elizabeth takes a shocking action in a pivotal scene — but because she’s essentially a stranger to Charles, readers may not be fully prepared to swallow it.

Questions aside, Talty’s depiction of Charles and those he loves is deeply felt, undeniably moving. “Fire Exit” shines a welcome light on people too easily written off or overlooked. Talty doesn’t shrink from tragedy: intergenerational trauma, the legacy of colonization and genocide, mental illness, alcoholism and economic struggle. Coexisting with tragedy, always, is resilience and the possibility of renewal. There is hope. This rewarding novel closes with a tilt toward redemption for Charles, the potential for new connection.

Talty has the writing chops and heart to expand his fictional universe and widen the lens — bringing in additional perspectives, raising up more voices and stories. It will be a gift to readers, and to Maine literature, when he does.

Genanne Walsh is the author of a novel, “Twister,” and a nonfiction chapbook, “Eggs in Purgatory.” She lives in Portland.

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