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Unger, Zac 1974(?)-

UNGER, Zac 1974(?)-


Born c. 1974; father a psychiatrist, mother a teacher; married Shona Unger (a lawyer); children: Percy (daughter), Maccabee (son). Education: Graduated from Deep Springs College and University of California, Berkeley; Brown University, B.S., 1996. Religion: Jewish.


Home—Oakland, CA. Agent—c/o Penguin Press Publicity, Penguin Group USA, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.


Author and firefighter.


Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman, Penguin Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to periodicals such as Slate.


A fictional account of a smalltown fire department.


Educated at Ivy League schools and the son of a professional couple—his father is a psychiatrist and his mother is a teacher—Zac Unger may seem ill-suited to the life of a firefighter. His five-foot, ten-inch frame makes him smaller than many of his contemporaries, and his relatively privileged background suggested that the long stretches of tedium, punctuated by adrenaline-fueled rescues, would not be a likely career path. Still, even as a child, Unger gravitated toward stories of disaster and the art of heroic rescue. Later in life, he harbored a desire for rugged work in forestry, and worked a series of dangerous odd jobs such as laying blasting cable in a mine and searching the cliff ledges of a national park for nesting peregrine falcons.

In his mid-twenties, Unger considered graduate school, but a chance sighting of an advertisement on a bus bench, also spotted and mentioned to him by his mother, changed his plans. The ad announced that the Oakland, California, Fire Department was hiring. Unger applied, and following a protracted series of starts and stops while he proceeded with graduate school, he was accepted into the firefighter training program. He endured the physical and mental rigor, the military-style training, and the wretched status of trainee to emerge, sixteen weeks later, as a trained Oakland fireman.

In his book, Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman, Unger tells his personal story and ruminates on the post-9/11 status of firefighters. Much of the work appeared as a diary he wrote for Slate magazine in 2001; in the expanded version, he "delivers a crisply written, somewhat gripping narrative of a rookie's life in the Oakland Fire Department," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Readers who approach the book with skepticism will find their doubts unfounded, noted Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley: "The book works on two levels: as an inside view of firefighting that vividly recreates the excitement and fear intrinsic to it, and as an account of how a son of the flower-power class turned into the real thing, a passionately dedicated firefighter." Yardley also added that "it doesn't hurt that Unger is a lucid writer whose prose almost always is set at just the right pitch, something that all too many professional writers often fail to achieve." Unger describes the training hardships inflicted by his drill instructor, Captain Gold; the dizzying, nerve-wracking probationary period as he moved from firehouse to firehouse to broaden his experience; the good-natured barbs and badmouthing he received from senior firefighters; and, finally, the exquisite thrill of his first real fire run. San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Annie Nakao remarked that Working Fire "is at once a gritty course on firefighting, a fascinating look at firehouse life and Unger's examination of what makes firefighters both heroic and just plain human. And why they love what they do."



Unger, Zac, Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman, Penguin Press (New York, NY), 2004.


Entertainment Weekly, March 12, 2004, Raymond Fiore, review of Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman, p. 119.

Esquire, April, 2004, Daniel Torday, review of Working Fire, p. 32.

Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2004, review of Working Fire, p. 31.

Library Journal, March 1, 2004, Edwin B. Burgess, review of Working Fire, p. 88.

Publishers Weekly, January 12, 2004, review of Working Fire, p. 45.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 7, 2004, Annie Nakao, "Firing Line: The Accidental Hero. In a New Memoir, East Bay Writer Zac Unger Combines the Literary Life with Saving Burning Buildings," p. E1.

Washington Post Book World, March 4, 2004, Jonathan Yardley, review of Working Fire, p. 2.*

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