After learning of the 1985 police attack on the Philadelphia headquarters of John Africa’s MOVE organization, an attack that destroyed fifty-three houses and killed eleven people, Cudjoe, a once-promising black novelist, leaves the Greek island where he has been living since his divorce and returns to Philadelphia. There he hopes to find some explanation for this seemingly senseless tragedy, and then, like Wideman, to write about it. First he must locate Simba, the child who escaped the fire at the MOVE compound. Simba, orphaned as a result of the fire, stands for all the novel’s lost children, including Cudjoe’s biracial children now living with their mother; Wideman’s imprisoned son, who along with Wideman figures prominently in the second of the novel’s three parts; the inner-city youths whom Cudjoe taught before abandoning them in order to pursue his own higher education; and finally the younger Cudjoe, who sought to escape both his identity and his responsibility as an African American.
At the sparsely attended funeral service for the eleven victims of the fire, “White college kids riff and scat an elegy for four voices.” Philadelphia Fire is itself an elegy for multiple voices written by an author who, although not himself white, has, like Cudjoe, gained entrance to the white world and enjoyed the “Power Money Things” coveted by Kaliban’s Kiddie Korps (KKK), the youths whom Cudjoe had taught earlier in his life and who now communicate through graffiti and violence. The novel mourns the eleven direct victims of the fire along with the child Simba, living but lost, for all practical purposes one of the KKK; Wideman’s son; Cudjoe’s...
(The entire section is 690 words.)