The following is a response to Jay Varner’s Nothing Left to Burn: A Memoir.
Varner’s book recounts his experiences as a child, his father Denton being the fire chief and not around for the most part, and his grandfather who turns out to be an arsonist. Varner writes that his father and his friends at Overhead Door, a factory where he worked aside from the fire company, liked to tell jokes to one another. Denton jokes, “Growing old is mandatory. Growing up isn’t. (p. 20)” This speaks volumes to the way he viewed life. Ironically, Denton wasn’t able to grow old, having been diagnosed with bone cancer; he died while he was still quite young. Denton later says, “They say that ‘I am’ is the shortest sentence in the English language. Know what the longest is? ‘I do’ (p. 125).” This tells us a lot about how he views his marriage. Though he loves his wife a lot they don’t really see eye to eye—Denton wants to help everyone in the community and Teena, his wife, only cares about their family (p. 106).
Jay reveals his father’s impending death early on in the memoir (p. 86), and later tells us what happened during that time—I wonder if the later parts of the memoir would have been stronger if he didn’t forwardly tell us that his father was going to die so that during his surgeries we would have been rooting for him to make it through. Perhaps he did this so that when he is first told of his father’s disease while he is still young and doesn’t seem to care—he just wanted to watch cartoons (p. 151)—it makes sense that he doesn’t make too much out of it.
For me, I think the book was written so that Jay could try to understand why his father was the way that he was, why he put the fire company ahead of his family. This comes through when Jay is working for the newspaper’s fire beat; he writes, “I yearn for another fire… I wonder if perhaps I am finally starting to understand him (p. 90).”
We also see that despite his regret for his father working so often at the fire company, he is becoming like him. While going to a fire call, “On this cold night, I only want to feel the heat of the flames—I hope It’s so hot that I can feel it in my lungs. And I want to smell the smoke—let it soak into my clothes and hair (p. 229).” This correlates to how Denton, despite his shame for his father being an arsonist, is becoming like his father—“There’s something not right in his head. He can’t stay from those fires. It’s like he’s addicted (p. 210).” Jay even gets the same watch that his father wears and says, “Somehow I thought that trying to be more like my father might bring him out of his coma (p. 213).”
In the last chapter of the book, Varner gets a box of his father’s things and finds a note from a friend, Goober. Goober says that “I never appreciated McVeytown and it’s people as much as I did when I left (p. 266).” Since Varner now lives in Virginia, does he feel the same way as Goober?