Taylor is 50 and has been smokejumping since 1965. Jumping Fire, his first book, focuses on one particularly incendiary summer in 1991, from April 29 to September 24, recording the day-to-day minutiae of an Alaskan smokejumper (including the tale of that summer's doomed love affair) while interspersing the narrative with memories accumulated from his nearly three decades of smokejumping and stories by and about his colorful colleagues.
The writing is vivid and immediate. Taylor clarifies the workings of parachute drogue release handles, Stevens connections, and cut-away clutches, but he doesn't inundate us with alienating terminology. The technical details are explained as they come up in the many scenes and anecdotes that shape the book. There are stories of jumps that ended in strangulation and multiple fractures and jumps that ended more comically, with the hapless jumper planted deep in a puddle of duck excrement, or landing on top of a moose. The guys rib each other mercilessly, perform their preflight gear checks religiously, and come to the assistance of their jump partners with a dedication that is inspiring.
The beauty of Alaska infuses Taylor's narrative. He describes the miraculous shift from winter to summer, with willow trees and red alders budding, massive plates of ice shattering, and the sunset-sunrise specials that last all night with the same care that's devoted to his scenes of blazing trees and scorched hills. By the time he pens the epilogue, dated December 1999, Taylor has become the oldest active smokejumper in the field's 60-year history and is trying to decide whether to sign up for the coming season. Should he choose to finally retire, he could always take up writing full-time. He's a natural. --Stephanie Gold