One thing I’ve learned: go looking for fire eaters and you don’t know what you’ll find. After putting out the word that I was looking for fire eaters (I have a few, um, unique friends in San Diego), after Internet searches, after placing an ad in a newspaper, I found two fire eaters in San Diego and got several more leads on fire eaters in San Diego County and Tijuana.

ctually, I found one fire eater in San Diego, and she was willing not only to demonstrate her craft to me but also to teach someone else, to initiate another into the society of fire eaters. Therein lies a good deal of this tale.

Let me tell you something about the initiate first. JunkBoy is his name, and I’ll hereafter refer to him as JB. It doesn’t say “JunkBoy” on his birth certificate. It’s his stage name, his nom de plume, his alter ego. He’s a born-and-bred San Diegan, about five feet ten inches, has medium-length sandy hair, wears one of those tiny beards just below the middle of his lower lip, and looks younger than his 38 years — and this is a man whose body, as you will see, has taken more than the usual wear and tear.

One of the first things JB said when we met was “I strap large amounts of explosives to my body and blow myself up.” Trying to act nonchalant, I scanned the room for the nearest exit. Given what’s going on in the world, this did not strike me as a good act for your average cabaret. I want to make it clear: he hasn’t done this publicly since 9/11. JB may be a little crazy (judge for yourself), but he’s not dumb. A machinist by trade, he’s made himself a steel chest protector. Very importantly, JB has access to professional pyrotechnic materials supplied to him by a man known as PyroBoy (natch). You could never get PyroBoy’s real name from JB, even if you used grisly torture. (Whereas, you could get from me JB’s real name if you worked me over with a rubber hose made of whipped cream.) As you will see, he is almost impervious to pain.

This is what he does: he hot-glues four or five rows of brick firecrackers to a black powder tape called quickmatch, which he then glues to the breastplate. Then he adds several “gerbs” — devices that shoot out sparks. Then some percussion devices (“Not so much an explosion as noisemakers”). Next, he attaches all this to a nine-volt igniter box (“with a safety switch”). He puts a sheet of Mylar over the explosives and puts a shirt on over it all. He says it’s a little bulky, but if he wears a coat it’s hardly noticeable. He plans a route to and from the place of his “performance,” always the kind of club where edgy acts take place, climbs on the stage unannounced, behaves boorishly until he starts getting heckled, and then he hits the switch. The explosion is designed to take place right on his chest, with very little outward or upward thrust. He makes sure he’s several feet from the first row. Sometimes, he says, paper from the crackers, and even a loose cracker or two, reaches the audience, but nobody, including himself, has ever been hurt. Though, he says, “My shirt usually catches fire.” He runs out and disappears a few seconds after the explosion.

I am one of those people, employed by a university English department, who still believe language is not the Betrayer, that, though not perfect, it is still by far the best way we have of communicating with each other. So I asked him what he called what he did. “Gosh, performance art, shock art, hit-and-run art.” I thought to call it Rubber Neck Art: like looking at a car crash — we may not want to, but we must. I remembered the performance artist who covered her body with slices of bologna — a euphemism for her talent? Most performance art I’ve seen over the years struck me as banal and pretentious, and usually with a PC point as subtle as a sharp stick in the eyeball. It always whiffed of narcissism, an excuse to climb onstage, preferably alone. It always seemed to me to lack discipline, a true passion to make something. Why study dance or singing or even writing when you can jump on a stage, act self-indulgently, and call it art?

But there was something very different about JB and his motives. Namely, he doesn’t seem to have any, at least not consciously. After blowing up, he doesn’t hang around waiting for applause. And, as you will see, there is nothing self-flattering about any of the other feats he performs. He is aware of the extreme commercial limitations in what he does. Indeed, he is much more at risk of being fined than of getting paid for his work. “I do it [remember, he is referring to not only exploding but also other feats as yet unspecified] for the reaction; that’s what I kind of get off on.”

He loved horror movies as a child and dressed up as characters to scare the other kids, unconfined by Halloween. He became obsessed with Houdini and read voraciously about him. One thing he never forgot about Houdini: much of his early career was spent hanging around with freaks and other sideshow people. JB knows the movie Freaks almost frame by frame. He taught himself many escape acts. He loved magic and was good at sleight of hand but “always too fast.”

Lest you’re wondering about his childhood: pretty normal. His parents were divorced when he was a young teenager, but he’s close to both of them and a brother, and he visits his grammy regularly. He had a monkey for 27 years, recently deceased, whom he mourns. The monkey was fed LSD by previous owners and therefore was a little jumpy. She (her name was Onion) had a lifelong fear of brooms and gloves. One can only shudder thinking of what those heinous hippies did to bum out the poor monkey in such a way. JB had some bad-boy years and his share of run-ins with booze and drugs, but he’s been clean and sober for some time now and in a stable relationship.

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