2010 at 5am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
Published September 21, 2010 by Algonquin Books
I’ve had fire-related songs stuck in my head for the better part of a month, and it’s all because of Jay Varner. The fact that his memoir Nothing Left to Burn has literally nothing to do with music is really irrelevant at this point. I have had fire on the brain. A sampling of what I’ve been humming lately:
“We Didn’t Start the Fire;” “Come on Baby, Light My Fire;” “Burn, Baby, Burn (Disco Inferno);” Finch’s “What It Is to Burn;” and, of course, “Ring of Fire.” Also, for some inexplicable reason, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
(I think that last one is likely the product of loose association. You know, fire = heat; heat = hell; hell = the devil. And where did that devil go? My brain. It is a scary place.)
Anyway, all of this is to say that Nothing Left to Burn is the kind of book that sticks with you. So how about a review?
Jay Varner’s grandfather was a serial arsonist, a man who lit a bonfire of trash every Saturday and “cocked his head like a dog, listening intently, as though the crackle and pop of the flames sounded like a melody to him.” And he was a man with a reputation. Varner’s father, the town fire chief (how’s that for reaction formation, Dr. Freud?), also had a reputation. He “seemed like the most famous man in town.” So it is nothing short of wildly interesting when Varner gets a gig writing the police and fire beat for the local paper in the family’s hometown McVeytown, PA.
Nothing Left to Burn is the story of a family connected by fire and an exploration of what happens when three generations of men burn with a shared obsession.
A true pyromaniac, like my grandfather, simply loves fire. The tension prior to striking a match arouses them. Gasoline smells like perfume, the radiating heat feels like hot breath against their face. A good fire blazes with uncontrollable passion, whipping palls of black smoke into the sky, swallowing a house in minutes, a beautiful ruin that never burns the same way twice. But a fire starter’s greatest joy is the response—they are drawn to firefighters and fire stations. A pyromaniac is gratified by the orchestrated chaos of screaming fire trucks, of men dressed in turn-out gear dashing about and dragging hoses over their shoulders, of the people who extinguish their beautiful living, breathing, flaming creation.
That was my grandfather. That was my father’s legacy. And now it was mine.
The book opens with Varner finding out he’ll be writing the police and fire beat for the town paper and reflecting on his feelings about the fireman—the supposed heroes and leaders of the community—he’ll be interacting with regularly. And his feelings are not rosy.
I don’t swell with the pride that most people in small towns feel for their volunteer firemen—I feel the same way about them as I feel about my father. Those men abandon their families. The firehouse was my dad’s excuse to miss dinner, skip out on my elementary school’s open houses, and break plans to play baseball or take me fishing. His commitment to his job as fire chief exceeded expectations—it seemed a guttural obsession, perhaps an addiction…
…For all the talents that my father had…he was best at leaving.
Varner resents his father’s glowing reputation and the fact that he was “neglected” and “invisible” next to his father’s dedication to fighting fires–it bears mentioning that Varner’s father stopped at the firehouse on the way to the hospital when Varner’s mother was in labor with him—and he both fears and fails to comprehend his grandfather, Lucky, the one who started it all. But then Varner goes on his first fire call.
And he likes it.
This is my initiation, my entry into the ring of fire that has held my family in thrall for years. I have dreaded my first fire for more than the simple threat of unburied memories; it is the rush that I fear too.
Varner can’t get over the thrill of being in the center of the action, near the licking flames, where he can feel the smoke and heat and danger. He finds himself sitting at his desk in the newspaper office practically praying for a fire to come over the police scanner, perversely wishing a disaster on strangers so he can get what is essentially his next fix.
I wished for others to suffer.
And he doesn’t like that quite so much.
It is the discovery that he shares his father’s and grandfather’s obsession with fire, albeit in a new and different form, that terrifies Varner most and gives him impetus to examine what it is that drives the men who have shaped his life and whom he has come to hate. So he starts asking questions, and let me tell you, there is a DOOZY of a revelation (or four) to be found in these pages. And Varner’s delivery of them? Well, it could be called nonchalant if it weren’t so. freaking. well. done.
Just in case you’re worried this book might be some kind of one-trick pony, let me reassure you that it’s not all fire, all the time. Varner tackles the kind of family dynamics we can all relate to (whether we admit it or not) and briefly explores the nature of faith and how one makes sense of tragedy and illness. His writing is crisp and well-paced, and he moves between present- and past-tense skillfully. Varner does what memoirists are supposed to do. He goes beyond the telling of a life’s story to explore the meaning of the events experiences that make his life the sort that deserves to have a book written about it. There is nothing extraneous or self-indulgent about this one.
Nothing Left to Burn is about a family’s legacy and the ways in which the sins of the father are visited on future generations, but it is also about acknowledging the darkness that resides inside oneself and coming to terms with the indelible impact this darkness leaves on every aspect of life. And every family has one. 5 out of 5…and a pair of flaming panties!
- The Book Lady’s Buzz: Jay Varner’s NOTHING LEFT TO BURN proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.
- The Bare Necessities—Jay Varner (NOTHING LEFT TO BURN)
- The Book Lady’s Best of 2010: Memoir
- Book Review & Giveaway: After the Fire by Robin Gaby Fisher
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