(1990) is John Edgar Wideman's seventh novel and the second of his books to receive the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award (Sent for You Yesterday won in 1984). A work that combines public events, personal history, and the imagination, Philadelphia Fire has been referred to as “docufiction” (documentary fiction). It also could be called a metafiction because it deals in part with the circumstances of its own composition.
The book concerns the aftermath of the 13 May 1985 bombing by the city of Philadelphia of a house occupied by a militant African American organization known as MOVE, which had resisted an eviction order. Nearly everyone in the house died and an entire city block was consumed in the resulting conflagration. This event and Wideman's personal response to it are described in the middle section of the book, which also deals with the author's anguish over the conviction and imprisonment for murder of his youngest son, Jake.
In the main narrative, a writer named Cudjoe returns from self-imposed exile on a Greek island to attempt to trace the whereabouts of Simba Muntu, a child who is supposed to be the sole survivor of the fire. Precisely what motivates Cudjoe to return so precipitously to the United States is not clear, but it appears to have something to do with his growing sense of betrayal: of himself, his sons (from whom he has estranged himself since his divorce), his talent, and his former commitment to changing the world. Cudjoe's separation from his sons parallels Wideman's loss of his own son to prison, and Cudjoe's quest to find Simba Muntu counterpoints Wideman's quest to free his son. But Simba isn't found, and Wideman's son remains imprisoned, underscoring the tragedy of a lost generation of American youth, one of the book's principal themes.
Views of the book have been divergent. Celebrated African American writer Charles R. Johnson, in a 1990 review in the Washington Post, calls Wideman “the most critically acclaimed black male writer of the last decade” and declares himself a fan, yet he finds Philadelphia Fire to be confusing and disappointing. For Darryl Pinckney, writing in 1991 in the Times Literary Supplement, the book is disorganized, a “parable” that “attempts too much.” On the other hand, Mark Hummel, assessing the book in the same year for the Bloomsbury Review, finds it to be “difficult but immensely important and always eloquent.” Ishmael Reed in Airing Dirty Laundry (1993) blames the metafictional form for some of Philadelphia Fire's problems—overdone details, uncertainty of plot—but he praises Wideman's courage as an artist and compares the novel to a Miles Davis concert, finding the performance to be “terrific.”
In an interview in Callaloo (Winter 1990), Wideman stated that in Fever and in Philadelphia Fire, he was forcing himself to stop and assess “what's happening to us.” This “urgent desire to bear witness,” as Darryl Pinckney calls it—also a principal motive in Brothers and Keepers (1985)—is one in which personal concerns converge with a concern for the state of the nation as a whole. Jan Clausen's description of Philadelphia Fire (in The Kenyon Review, Spring 1992) as “anguished, apocalyptic” underscores the unsettling nature of Wideman's testimony, the unsettled nature of our social being.