Fieseler handles contradictions with finesse, parsing the closet’s long shadow over gay life in New Orleans, one reason the [Up Stairs Lounge] tragedy did not catalyze the kind of outrage and activism that followed the Stonewall rebellion.... The book is loving, sensitive, and diligent.
In his impressive, meticulously reported debut as a nonfiction author, Robert Fieseler vividly re-creates the world that produced a galvanizing tragedy, a fire at a New Orleans bar in the summer of 1973 that took thirty-two lives. In reminding us of the furtiveness of gay life even in a tolerant city, and of the official culture’s hostility to it, Tinderbox is riveting and unforgettable.
This vital book chronicles one of the worst outrages against gay people in modern America, and it does so with fantastic vividness. It restores a forgotten chapter of horror to our national narrative of rights. Robert W. Fieseler reminds us how deep prejudice was, not only on the part of the man who set the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, but also in the media that ignored the story and the population that took no interest in it.
Robert W. Fieseler has given us a profoundly moving and deeply researched reminder of the tragic and ghastly costs of bigotry, silence, and the closet. We must never go back.
Tinderbox is more than a memorial. It is a call for our ongoing struggle to build movements for love and dignity for everyone everywhere.
This book provides a vivid portrait of the hardscrabble lives of the dishwashers, grocery clerks, soldiers, and other working men for whom the Up Stairs Lounge became a sanctuary, and then a heart-wrenching reconstruction of the horrifying hour it turned into a deathtrap. Its account of the aftermath of this tragedy is equally illuminatingand sobering.
Tinderbox is a work of enormous significance that announces the arrival of a gifted new author. Robert Fieseler writes with acuity and compassion about mythic themeslove, faith, death, grief. And as he does so, he chronicles an essential event in gay history, the tragic fire that propelled the movement for social and legal equality.
As in a Shakespearean tragedy, the ghosts of the closeted and disrespected dead resurrect to tell their stories in Robert Fieseler’s Tinderbox. Compassionately written and extraordinarily reported, the book demonstrates that memory is a life-affirming force that can triumph over the injustices of death. Tinderbox will likely take its place in the canon of the history of gay rights in America.
Fieseler handles contradictions with finesse, parsing the closet's long shadow over gay life in New Orleans…The book is loving, sensitive and diligent.
The New York Times - Parul Sehgal
Journalist Fieseler’s eye-opening first book examines the 1973 arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans, which killed 32 people and which was, until the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016, the worst attack on a gay club in American history. The book begins with a scene from the morning of the fire in which bartender Buddy Rasmussen and his lover, Adam Fonte, drive to the bar. The chapter on the fire itself is a haunting recreation of what it was like for those trapped inside, including Fonte, who died, and Rasmussen, who made it out and led a group to safety. Fieseler then focuses on the public’s largely ambivalent response to the attack, which received little media attention and a less-than-thorough police investigation that failed to identify the culprit. He describes how the gay liberation movement virtually shut down in New Orleans in the fire’s aftermath and adds that “the Up Stairs Lounge... exposed a majority of citizens as at best apathetic towards homosexuals while also revealing that civil rights movements of the era were tone-deaf.” Though Fieseler’s prose leans toward overreach—“Humidity, so thick with vapor that breathing air could feel like crying tears, would almost routinely reach 100 percent”—his attention to detail and intricate exploration of the material is spot-on. Fieseler shines a bright light on a dark and largely forgotten moment in the history of the gay rights movement. (June)
Fieseler unflinchingly recounts the fire and sets it firmly in the context of the times.
It's indescribably moving to learn in a final author's note that survivors hesitant to speak on the record for
Tinderbox came forward with urgency after the Pulse massacre. Their testimonies, Fieseler's rigorous research and his amiable prose make this a vital, inspiring volume in the annals of gay history.
Very moving.... Eloquent... haunting. The structure reminds one of Thornton Wilder’s classic novel
The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which the individual fates of a disparate group of people united by a bridge collapse are described.... The description of the fire, pieced together bit by bit from interviews with survivors and archival research, is so painstakingly done.... The heart of this book concerns the individual stories Fieseler has assembled. These make his book far more than just a history of gay rights; they make it an infinitely sad portrait of what these people went through.
Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orland, FL, the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973 was the largest mass murder of gays in America. Here, journalist Fieseler investigates this tragedy, which tore apart a local gay community. He opens with poignant details of the lives of many of the fire's 32 victims, most of whom were leading double lives as they were not publicly out to their family and friends. On a hot summer evening, after a weekly "beer bust" event, an arsonist set fire to the steps leading up to the bar. Fiesler describes the blaze and chaos in the bar in excruciating and terrifying detail; many survivors and bystanders were traumatized by watching victims burn alive through the lounge windows. A gay prostitute named Roger Nunez, who was previously kicked out the bar for fighting was the most likely suspect, although he was never convicted. While the national gay community supported the victims of the fire, most New Orleanians either made cruel jokes about it (the largest in the city's history) or ignored it entirely. VERDICT A vivid, fast-paced, and essential LGBTQ and social history.—Kate Stewart, Arizona Historical Soc., Tuscon
A history of the 1973 events that set a club in New Orleans—and the gay community—on fire.Gay liberation movements are often associated with the Stonewall riots or ACT UP's transgressive and vital actions during the AIDS crisis. It's not often that the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, is placed within the narrative of gay uprisings and the reinforcement of community values. In this significant debut, journalist Fieseler has effectively made himself the authority on the subject. On June 24th, 1973, as men and women of all ages enjoyed a coveted evening in the safest place they knew, a gay man, angry after getting in a fight with patrons, poured lighter fluid on the steps leading to the Up Stairs Lounge. The events that ensued were horrific: "Lambent flames reached the back corner of the bar area, and the street lit up with the sound of seventeen people shrieking. Seeing faces burn in the windows, [a patron] yelled for them to jump. Fire ate them up." That night, 32 people lost their lives, but their deaths set fire to a different kind of flame. Fieseler discusses in great detail the conditions in which gay men were forced to live: in hiding, constantly afraid of discovery, putting a straight mask on in public. At the time, homosexuality was still illegal. More shocking, however, is what the author's rigorous research shows about how authorities, the media, and legislators mishandled the fire and aftermath. Through a series of systemic dismissals, linguistic omissions, and general complacency, the event has been largely erased from American history. Fieseler's work is an essential piece of historical restitution that takes us from 1973 to 2003, when homosexuality was finally decriminalized in Louisiana. Powerfully written and consistently engaging, the book will hopefully shed more light on the gay community's incredible and tragic journey to equality.A momentous work of sociological and civil rights history.