City Refugee Delivers Fire Sermon in Philip Connor's 'Fire Season'

When Philip Connors–whose first book, Fire Season (Ecco, 246 pages, $24.99), about his job as a fire lookout on a mountaintop in New Mexico, arrives this month–applied for a job at The Wall Street Journal in 1999, he was asked to send along six clips of his work. The problem was, his best piece, an essay in The Nation on a proposed gold mine, included the sentence, “Even a newspaper as sympathetic to corporate plunder as the Wall Street Journal once called Plum Creek [a timber company operating near the mine] the ‘Darth Vader of the industry.'” What to do?

Mr. Connors, born in Iowa and educated in Montana, had only a few other clips to his name, all from his time as an intern at the Fargo Forum, and he was almost broke. His solution, more than any of his past writing, showed his readiness for a career at the Bible of Capitalism. He called up a friend at the Nation and asked him to print out a doctored copy of the article. A week later, Mr. Connors had the job.

It was an odd fit. Bob Bartley, then the editorial-page editor of The Journal, who interviewed Mr. Connors when he became a copy editor, was on the record saying he didn’t believe there were any poor people left in America–“just a few hermits or something like that.” Mr. Connors had grown up poor on a farm in rural Minnesota, waiting in line for handouts of government cheese. When Mr. Connors recommended a Walker Evans exhibition at the Met to Mr. Bartley, the old editor checked it out for five minutes before leaving for the more aristocratic haunts of the Egyptian galleries. “It wasn’t for me,” he said.

“For Bob Bartley,” as Mr. Connors would later write in a piece on his time at The Journal in n+1, “the agrarian pictures of Walker Evans and the homoerotic pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe were morally equivalent. Both depicted human beings in a sinful state of filth and degradation, and such images had no place in an American museum.”

After three years of copyediting and writing occasional pieces for the Leisure & Arts page–including a TV column about not owning a TV and a profile of a Harlem performance artist who literally ate a copy of The Journal for breakfast (with ketchup and milk to wash it down)–Mr. Connors quit the paper. He had been asked to start copyediting its editorials–“here, finally, was the line I would not cross.” Instead, he took his first and last piece of advice from Mr. Bartley and became something of a hermit himself, leaving New York for the aforementioned mountaintop.

“I surveyed my past and saw only blind striving; I played out my future and saw an abyss: day after day, the guillotine of an evening deadline, stretching into the murky distance. I looked long into the abyss and I jumped,” Mr. Connors, now 38, writes in Fire Season. “I discovered I had things to say that could not be said in the pages of a daily newspaper. Plus, when the weather cooperates, I prefer to work shirtless.”

The weather on one of Mr. Connors’ few recent trips to New York was a little too chilly for him to go shirtless. He arrived to meet The Observer clean cut and dressed in a sharp blazer. Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, one of Mr. Connors’ old drinking buddies, likes to compare him to Clark Kent, a point on which the women of New York who knew him back in the day tend to agree.

Lots of city residents after 9/11 thought about leaving New York for some kind of mountaintop retreat. Mr. Connors actually did it. He now spends about four months of the year several thousand feet above sea level, sitting in a 7-by-7-foot metal box, with a hundred-mile view in every direction. When he sees smoke from a fire, he calls it in to headquarters; when not on the job, he lives in a tiny, mouse-infested cabin just beneath the tower. After 10 days on the mountain, he gets four days in Silver City, N.M., where he lives with his (very patient) wife, Martha, 39, whom he met in New York. Then he heads up to the mountaintop again.

Mr. Connors first stumbled into the job when he went to visit an old friend from college who had signed up for a summer as a lookout. She was going crazy; Mr. Connors couldn’t get enough. He flew to New York, quit his job at The Journal, and two weeks later was back on the mountain. “This was less than a year after September 11,” he says. “Most everyone I knew was committed to hunkering down where they were and weathering the downturn. I jumped at the first chance that presented itself–to become a fire lookout. It struck me as a kind of paid writing retreat with good views.”

Mr. Connors’ editor at Ecco, Matt Weiland, admits that Mr. Connors’ vocation sounds like “just about the fucking most boring job I could imagine.” In this he is joined by a surprising assent–that of Jack Kerouac. In the 1950s, broke and persuaded by a friend to try a summer as a lookout, Kerouac went mad within a week: “Here I am on Desolation Peak not ‘coming face to face with God’ as I sententiously predicted, but myself, my shitty frantic screaming at bugs self — There is no God, there is no Buddha, There is nothing but just this and what name shall we give it? SHIT. There is only this blank horseshit.” Kerouac quit after just one season. Mr. Connors still can’t get enough. After almost 10 years up on the mountain, the job, he said, has become “an exercise in just how much watching I can stand. I’ve yet to find the limit.”

If a career as a lookout sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to some, Mr. Connors’ writing, to a certain cohort, has proven the opposite. Keith Gessen, an editor of n+1, said, “He makes arguments in the memoir form. All of Phil’s pieces that we’ve run, they’re memoir, but they incorporate these arguments about literature and politics and philosophy that emerge very organically out of the writing.”

Mr. Stein agreed. “Phil only writes about things that are actually of interest, of urgent interest. He’s a very direct writer, and very honest, and free of vanity. When he sits down to write, the thing that he’s writing about is the thing that guides his pen.”

Mr. Connors’ time in New York is a big part of what’s allowed him to succeed as a writer up on the mountaintop. But only by leaving New York could he finally get the time to write what he wanted, and also come to terms with what had happened in the city.

“There is, of course, a fear involved in leaving New York,” Mr. Connors admits, “the fear that all your bright young friends are on track for the kind of interesting career that you’ve now renounced. The fear that if you can’t make it there, you might make it somewhere else, but it won’t feel as sweet. Youthful folly!”

City Refugee Delivers Fire Sermon in Philip Connor's 'Fire Season'