When a book begins with a sentence like “The sun’s golden glitter threw itself against Marie Antoinette’s harp,” you might guess there will be some absurdity ahead. And in the case of Beth Raymer’s novel Fireworks Every Night (Random House, 2023), you would be right. But the real achievement of this debut fiction is to find the humanity in a plucked-from-the-headlines story of a family trying to have it all in an American paradise.
Landing in Loxahatchee
The life of protagonist C.C. – named for her father’s favorite whiskey, Canadian Club – is surrounded with excesses that would make even the notorious French monarch cry Mon Dieu! Her father is a used car salesman who burns down his dealership so the family can flee from a hollowed-out coal town to a freshly assembled scrub division home in Loxahatchee.
“Florida,” he brags, “we got it all. Motor sports, ribs, beer. You can drive on the sand right up to the ocean. Fireworks every night.”
But once their home in paradise is established, the cracks in their foundation begin to show. C.C.’s straight-A sister develops a life-altering drug addiction after being raped by a cousin. Her mother morphs into a giddy teenager who spends hours on the phone, sexually pursuing C.C.’s classmates.
C.C. just manages to escape her family’s turmoil by falling in love with Alex, scion of a ridiculously wealthy New York family. The kind of family who would keep a dead queen’s favorite musical instrument on display.
Pass the Blizzard®
If that’s where Fireworks Every Night ended, it might read like a grittier, grimier Jane Austen novel. But, interestingly, this is where the story really begins: with C.C.’s dawning understanding that her marriage to Alex is fundamentally flawed and her decision to attempt a reconciliation with her estranged father.
Here, Raymer’s genius for portraiture really shines: in her vulnerable and compassionate sketches of people coping with the lifelong burdens of poverty and prejudice. In one poignant scene, for instance, C.C. reunites with her now semi-housed father for a “happy hour” at a Dairy Queen: “Dad was already there, sitting in the back booth, beside his garbage bags. New ones – fresh, shiny, and black, thick heavy-duty, with handles. His way of making a good impression, I thought, and hugged him tight.”
Poverty and Prejudice
There’s a reason Florida Man stories come from Florida; no other state since the days of the Wild West seems to wear its colorful mixture of violence, instability, self-reinvention, and flimsy social safety net with quite the same gusto as us. Raymer’s story could so easily have gloried in the sensationalism of its characters’ fall from grace and ended up just another ‘that’s so Florida’ tale.
But it doesn’t. By juxtaposing the struggles of C.C.’s family with the deeply elitist behavior and assumptions of Alex’s family – I mean, come on, Marie Antoinette’s harp? In your living room? – Raymer illuminates the wounds that fester under our American myth of meritocracy. And paints a compelling, darkly humorous family drama while she’s at it.
Raymer’s grim subject matter and rough-around-the-edges characters won’t please everyone. But if you’re looking for an honest and heartfelt exploration of opting-out in the land of opportunity, Fireworks Every Night might just be the book for you.