The world of actors who also fancy themselves fiction authors is chockablock with published disaster. The history of the “person famous for a different artistic medium writes a novel” genre is rife with unwanted tomes of fuzzy narratives, hack idioms, and enough unnecessary adverbs to blanket every copy of James Franco’s Actors Anonymous several times over. That goes double for actors, people who are very good at playing make-believe professionally but not always the most linguistically recondite people in the room. (That’s not an insult, by the way: Believably playing pretend in front of a camera is an unimaginably difficult task for me—I was 100 percent on Christian Bale’s side in that little Terminator: Salvation fracas.) Given that most books, like most works of art in general, are not very good—and that’s from people trying to do it as their day job—the subset of other artists moonlighting as fiction authors can result in some miserable prose, indeed.
That’s probably why a lot of them employ ghostwriters, or at least turn to co-authors, to help them shape their half-formed allegorical ideas and muddled notions about structure into readable form. William Shatner wisely handed over TekWar to ghostwriter mainstay Ron Goulart. Chuck Norris’ The Justice Riders credits three other authors, suggesting that Chuck’s work may have involved approving the title, then amiably roundhouse-kicking a nearby two-by-four. Those collaborations look even more sensible when someone like Tyra Banks tries to do it herself and comes up with the insanity that is Modelland. But mostly, the actors who attempt pulling off the real thing end up with a good editor and a middling novel both respectable and forgettable, something you’re not ashamed to have read but which will never make even a “fun summer beach read” recommendation list. (Those are saved for actors’ juicy autobiographies, as anyone who’s ever read Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends well knows.) They strive for greatness and end up with something like Ethan Hawke’s The Hottest State.
All of which is to say I had no expectations of quality when I picked up Krysten Ritter’s debut novel, Bonfire, let alone entertained any idea it would turn out to be a slick and engaging work of commercial fiction. It was pure idle curiosity that motivated my decision to peruse the first couple of chapters, much the same way you might click through to a poem by David Duchovny despite your better judgment. I’m a fan of her acting, from Gilmore Girls to Veronica Mars to Marvel’s Jessica Jones, so I grabbed it on a whim, figuring I’d read just enough to suss out if it was another competent-enough ghostwritten vanity project or unreadable self-penned mess. Instead, it’s neither: It’s a genuinely entertaining book that avoids the pitfall of striving to be “serious” (read: no fun) literature, but it possesses enough of a distinctive voice to rise above the interchangeable mass of generic pop lit licensed from other famous names.
Bonfire is a combination legal thriller and small-town “character reckons with their traumatic past” soap opera, and it moves with a propulsive intensity that overcomes the weaknesses and delivers on the promise of pulpy fun. Newly minted environmental lawyer Abby Williams leaves her cosmopolitan Chicago life to investigate a potential case in her hometown of Barrens, Indiana, a company town bought and paid for (and being kept afloat) by Optimal Plastics and its factory. But rumored water pollution and damaging health effects lead Abby to suspect there’s corruption involved, and drive her to connect it with a similar situation 10 years prior, when her best friend accused the company of making her sick, only to vanish without a trace before senior year ended. As you might expect, the evidence mounts, and soon Abby is being threatened in ways both subtle and frighteningly direct.
It’s far from a perfect book. Many of the normal rookie mistakes of first-time novelists are there, none more so than a tendency for Ritter’s main character to spout half-baked aphorisms like a wanna-be 1920s gumshoe: “Patterns are like truth. They’ll set you free, but first they’ll give you a bitch of a migraine.” “Which means we might be onto something or we might be running straight towards a brick wall. Unfortunately, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.” There’s also the insistent need to turn subtext into text: “Some of us are out of place even when we are home,” Abby thinks, long after the book has made that theme obvious. The italics just push it onstage to take a bow.
But these are minor quibbles for a novel that delivers as much pleasure and flashes of honest insight as this one. The strongest material is borne of Ritter’s facility with childhood memories, particularly the negative kind; Abby’s return home dredges up past suffering that ineluctably colors every interaction with her former high school tormentors, in ways that ring true even as she’s pretending to have moved on. Similarly, there’s a deep vein of clear-eyed truth running through the book when it comes to understanding the large and small ways women’s voices are devalued. Ritter understands the insidious forms of gaslighting that so often pass unnoticed simply because they’re so deeply ingrained in informal social groups and small-town culture alike. And she’s unsparing in her account of the elaborate methods by which teenage girls can wound each other, too: “Things like that have a way of carrying down, generation to generation, twisting the way viruses do, becoming more powerful and bleeding across borders to high schools around the world.” Her characters are attuned to the subtle manipulations and social cues between both antagonists and friends, the unspoken communication of gestures that can injure as efficiently as a weapon.
But mostly, the damn thing is just fun. The legal aspect ends a bit too abruptly and prematurely—it’s clearly not where Ritter’s interest in the story lies—but Abby is an engaging and complex narrator, just unreliable enough (and unsure of herself even when she has a clear view of events) to sustain an air of mystery during seemingly cut-and-dried situations. This is a novel about digging up the past in order to set it right for the future, a theme relatable to anyone; but there are also tense showdowns, car chases, and psychological horror beats that feel organic, not shoehorned in to the proceedings.
This isn’t to say Ritter should abandon her day job. She’s an excellent actor, and for the time being, it’s the medium in which her talents are strongest. But it’s rare enough to come across an actor who writes with such page-turning verve while maintaining a clear and idiosyncratic voice, rather than the standard commercial fiction platitudes of the dabbler (or worse, the arty ramblings of the celebritentious), that it’s deserving of applause. Bonfire shouldn’t keep her from taking acting gigs, but it should drive her to continue writing, just as it deserves an audience to appreciate its easy pleasures. She may or may not have had a silent partner in crafting this thriller, but Bonfire’s point of view is singular.