Susan Orlean’s Tale of Arson and Unfulfilled Dreams

Susan Orlean’s Tale of Arson and Unfulfilled Dreams

Burning Ambition

Susan Orlean’s tale of arson and unfulfilled hopes in Los Angeles.


In the Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, the Devil comes to 1930s Moscow and wreaks havoc on the lives of the city’s literati. A talented writer, known as “the Master,” feels trapped in a world of ideologically pure but talentless hacks and throws his manuscript into a fire. Bulgakov had done just that in 1930: Believing it impossible to exist as a writer under Stalin’s repressive regime, he burned the first draft of the novel. Later in the story, the Master is visited by the Devil, who returns the book, undamaged. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” he tells the Master.

In many ways, this sentiment—a belief in the resilience of stories to survive anything, even physical destruction—underpins Susan Orlean’s new work of nonfiction, The Library Book. It tells the story of the 1986 fire that ravaged the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library: the largest library fire in US history, with over 1 million books damaged or destroyed, not to mention magazines, documents, and rare photographs of early LA. One librarian told Orlean that she could smell “the syrupy odor” of burning microfilm from outside as she watched the firefighters try to put out the blaze. Four hundred thousand books burned in the fire, but through Orlean’s masterful retelling, the stories that once filled Central Library have, much like the Master’s manuscript, risen from the ashes.

Fire investigators very quickly eschewed the usual suspects—lit cigarettes and bad wiring—and determined that it was an act of arson. Yet who in a city that had largely stopped caring about the downtown neighborhood, where the Central Library was located, would set fire to it? Why destroy half a million books when, to quote Frank Ocean, “you got the beach”? The investigators eventually settled on a handsome young out-of-work actor named Harry Peak, who seemingly confessed to setting the fire, but not everyone was convinced. Maybe he just wanted people to think he’d done it, telling an exciting story that would make him feel famous, even if only among his friends. Throwing herself into uncovering the mysteries of this story, Orlean finds that the real burning question at the heart of the arson case had less to do with Peak than with Los Angeles and the desire for celebrity that beckons so many people to it.

Orlean, who’s been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, is not new to crime writing. Her 1998 book, The Orchid Thief, told the story of a South Florida man named John Laroche, who had been arrested four years earlier for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. The Orchid Thief was adapted by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman into the film Adaptation (2002), which dramatized Kaufman’s struggle to create a linear narrative from Orlean’s “sprawling New Yorker shit” (as the Kaufman character in the movie, played Nicolas Cage, puts it).

The Library Book, like the city in which it is set, does sprawl, but in the best possible way, touching on everything from the politics of book burning to the physics of combustion to the future of brick-and-mortar libraries in a digital world. She never fully resolves the mystery behind the arson, or whether Harry Peak did or did not commit it. Yet she does uncover many other stories along the way. While The Library Book flirts with the genre of true crime, in the end it is really a book about Los Angeles and the burning ambition of the people—Harry Peak among them—who flock to it.

Peak’s family moved to California from Missouri in the 1940s. Like many people who move west, even today, they were searching for something. “California seemed like a promise,” Orlean writes of the Peaks. After dropping out of high school, Harry’s father found work on the assembly line of a Los Angeles aerospace manufacturer that eventually serviced the Space Shuttle program. While the Peaks lived just 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles, their working-class community was worlds away from the glitz and glamour of the big city, and young Harry dreamed of escaping it.

Attractive, blond, and troubled, Peak found that when he did escape to LA, he fit right in. Sharing “a house in Hollywood with a few other young men grasping at the tattered edges of show business,” he took plenty of odd jobs, all of which he was terrible at. On his first day as a valet at the Sheraton Hotel, Peak forgot where he’d parked a guest’s car. Even when it came to his main ambition—to be an actor—he had bad luck: Once he started auditioning, he soon discovered that he suffered from terrible stage fright.

But Peak was good at something: making friends, an essential skill in a city where your big break might come at a house party (in fact, my former roommate signed a modeling contract after attending a new friend’s Andy Warhol–themed costume party in LA). Peak was also good at something else that should have come in handy in a town built on fabulism: As his acquaintances from those days reported to Orlean, he was a compulsive liar. He lied about having a part on a medical show, “maybe General Hospital,” his dad thought. He lied about having drinks with Cher. He claimed to be close friends with Burt Reynolds. Orlean recounts that he told this one often and with relish, especially to his friends and relatives back home: “Harry’s supposed friendship with Burt Reynolds had the power of legend in his family.”

That’s why no one took him seriously when Peak got drunk and said that he’d set the public library on fire. One friend said he “couldn’t picture Harry at a library” because “he couldn’t recall ever seeing Harry read a book,” and at first, the police, who’d received a tip from someone claiming that Peak resembled the composite sketch of the arsonist shown on TV, also thought that he likely had nothing to do with it. He had no connection to anyone at the library, and he failed to stand out in any way—a sad thing, really, for someone who wanted to be a movie star. To the police, Orlean writes, he seemed “like just another one of the thousands of young men who churn through Los Angeles, job-hopping, tumbling from one apartment to another, a little feckless and starry-eyed, lifted by the continuous supply of hope and sun.”

Orlean had never heard of the Central Library fire when she moved to Los Angeles in 2011. There had been little in the papers about it even at the time, though perhaps understandably so: The Chernobyl disaster, Orlean reminds us, had unfolded just days prior, and the possible end of days left little column space for a local fire, no matter how significant. A chance encounter with Ken Brecher, head of the nonprofit Library Foundation of Los Angeles, led to his giving her a tour of Central Library and its history several days later. While they roamed the stacks together, Brecher took a whiff of one of the books and remarked that he could “still smell the smoke.” Confused, Orlean asked if patrons were allowed to smoke cigarettes inside the library. When Brecher explained that the smell was from “the fire,” Orlean’s interest was piqued. “What fire?” she asked—and thus began her quest to get to the bottom of a mystery that baffled law enforcement and had burned a sizable hole in the collections of what is now the third-largest central library in the country.

As with The Orchid Thief, Orlean was never only interested in the story of Peak and the fire itself; in fact, the mystery surrounding the arson merely holds together the many and varied constituent parts of a narrative that swings from the early days of the Los Angeles Public Library system and the eccentric cast of characters—veritable celebrities in their own right—who have served as director over the years to the herculean efforts of John Szabo, the current head of the system, and his tireless efforts to turn Central Library into a place where the city’s most vulnerable can gain access to key social services and benefits.

Along the way, Orlean also delves into a variety of other topics. Her inquisitive mind moves in the opposite direction from a police procedural. She’s not trying to narrow down the suspects; she’s expanding the scope of her inquiry all the way back to the nearly mythic fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria, with detours examining the struggle to integrate libraries in Atlanta and the history of book burning, especially during wars. “Destroying a culture’s books,” Orlean says on this last point, “is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

Orlean does eventually return to the mystery at hand and the core question of the Central Library fire: motive. Why would Peak have set it? Whenever Orlean picks up the Harry Peak thread again, the effect of Los Angeles on the minds of its denizens is never far from her speculation over his guilt. “I could picture Harry Peak,” she tells us, “because I saw him every day in the handsome overgroomed busboys who waited on me, and in the gym-trim extras I sometimes came across when there was filming in my neighborhood—I could recognize their anxious posing, as if each moment bristled with the potential to change their entire lives.”

Could movie-star ambitions have led Peak to commit arson? Orlean lets her mind hover over this question, but she never settles on an answer. As unlikely as it might seem, there are several precedents for this in Los Angeles. Orlean recounts the story of a Glendale fire captain named John Leonard Orr, who sold a novel about an arsonist/firefighter to a literary agent. After suspicions were raised that a number of the fires in the book bore disquieting similarities to actual incidents in Glendale, Orr’s agent responded blithely, “We live in LA. Everyone’s got a script or book they’re trying to sell.” Yet it turned out that Orr was, in fact, behind the fires; he was eventually found guilty of more than “twenty counts of arson and four counts of murder.”

Peak, too, enjoyed the spotlight that crime brought with it. The day of the fire, he called a friend at his old valet job and bragged about being at the library that day, talked about how hot the place had gotten, and added that a sexy fireman carried him out of the building. “Harry loved to insert himself into any public spectacle,” the friend recalled, so he took the story with a grain of salt—just another one of Peak’s tall tales, like the one about being friends with Burt Reynolds.

But Peak kept retelling the story to his friends, embellishing it each time, until eventually he added that he had actually set the fire. His roommate’s mother and sister called the police, and Peak was picked up for questioning. He proved to be just as slippery with the truth when face-to-face with investigators. “The problem with Harry,” Orlean writes, is “that he didn’t just pick one lie and stick with it. He presented so many versions of the story that believing one meant disbelieving another.”

Eventually, the police counted seven different versions of events offered by Peak, though he maintained his innocence in each. But even those who thought he was guilty still could not determine why he had done it. Was it attention-seeking? Could it even have been racism? Peak made several mentions to the police of an African-American guard at the library who’d supposedly been rude to him—it was one of the few details that remained consistent across his various testimonies. Or was he angry that his recent application to join the fire department had been rejected?

One explanation that seems plausible to Orlean was the one he’d shared with his ex-boyfriend: that he’d been having sex with a stranger in the bathroom and accidentally dropped a lit cigarette in the trash can. Though “it even had the virtue of being logical,” Orlean writes, the fire never touched the library’s restrooms, so it couldn’t have been true.

In the end, in fact, no one, not even the police, could determine if Peak ever really was at the library that day, and if he had been, what he was doing there if not setting a fire. Was a postcoital cigarette to blame, or was it all just a lie, even his being there—a wholly invented story designed to inject something exciting into an otherwise humdrum existence of part-time jobs and auditions that never led to anything. Peak was released three days after his arrest and never charged. To this day, no one knows who set it.

If the The Library Book does not draw conclusions about Peak or the Central Library fire, what makes it compelling is that, while it is ostensibly a book about ambition, desperation, and loss, it is also about a city and a public institution teeming with life, humor, and wild personalities. Early in the investigation into the fire, a woman writes to the police accusing someone she knew of setting it. “Dear Sir,” read her letter, “This man, Richard W———, may have set FIRE to your library…. He was born an Aries.” And so many of the stories offer testament to what happens when you spend a considerable amount of time focused on a public space that is free and open to everyone; no matter what one is in pursuit of, you will come up against the full gamut of humanity. In this way, Orlean consoles her readers, assuring us that, as long as there are people, there will be new stories in need of writing down and new stories to fill a place like Central Library. There is perhaps no place that understands that better than Los Angeles, a city where new people arrive every day, eager to tell a story to the world.

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