Reading Sticks of Fire: The Turning Point (Tumi Publishing, 2007) by Ricardo Estrada, I am reminded of the concept of the well-wrought urn, an idea invoked by literary critic Cleanth Brooks to discuss his criteria for evaluating the merits of individual works of literature. Despite trends in academia that called for works of literature to be interpreted primarily in terms of their social and historical contexts, Brooks insisted that some works, in a sense, stood outside of history, that these works might universally be described as "good," regardless of the age or context in which they were written or in which they may be received. The literature of William Shakespeare and John Donne leap to mind as examples of such works, as does "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. In short, the well-wrought urn is the work of art that is perfect in terms of both form and content, and, for what it is and what it does, Estrada's first novel fits the bill.
Before going on, I should point out that I'm not making an argument for placing Estrada alongside Shakespeare, Donne and Keats in the pantheon of English letters. (Of course, I'm not making an argument against it, either!) What I am saying, however, is that Sticks of Fire is the perfect specimen of books of its type. That is, it's an excellent addiction and recovery novel. Throughout the proceedings, Estrada advances his characters and settings like a master craftsman, providing his creatures with strong motives both for falling into and overcoming addiction, equally strong obstacles to defeat, and perhaps most importantly, a credible and complex depiction of the processes that go into recovering from addiction. It would be very easy for Estrada to give us a story of pure triumph over addiction, but because he explores the gray areas of recovery and the ambivalence inherent in living with addiction, Sticks of Fire transcends the typical after-school special tropes of addiction and recovery tales and, instead, rises to the level of art.
The basic plot of the novel revolves around a 27 year-old widower named Orlando, whose alcoholism stems largely from the loss of his wife and unborn child. Although he realizes on one level that his drinking is problematic, he is generally able to kid himself into believing that it isn't really a problem. Yet when various pressures related to a new job at a halfway house begin to mount, the tenuous control he has over his relationship with alcohol slips away, and he begins to recognize that he has more in common with the individuals he's been hired to help than he might initially like to admit. Once he recognizes this fact, however, Orlando can embrace not only his job but his life as well, and once he does, he helps the residents of his halfway house organize a basketball team, which both metaphorically and literally allows them to work together in order to find purpose in their lives.
Part Hoosiers and part Clean and Sober, Sticks of Fire is an engaging read, likely the best book ever written on addiction and basketball. The characters come to life, the settings are vividly depicted, and the story is told with enthusiasm. I can easily see this novel being made into a Hollywood film - or better yet, an indie. And, needless to say, I hope to hear more from Ricardo Estrada in the future.