A coming-of-age memoir in the tradition of Tobias Wolff’s Â This Boy’s Life and Gary Fincke’s The Canals of Mars, Jay Varner’s debut book Nothing Left to Burn tells a generational story in tiny McVeytown, a rundown blip on the map in Central Pennsylvania. We start with Jay, a reporter on the fire beat for the local paper, but then flash back in time to his childhood for a better picture of his father, Denton, the town fire chief and local hero. Hovering over both of their lives is Jay’s twisted grandfather, Lucky, a man infamous in McVeytown for being a serial arsonist. As a child, Jay is too young to understand that Denton is seeking penance for the sins of his father, and only realizes that he misses his often absent dad. But as an adult returned to his hometown years after his father’s death, Jay goes searching for answers in the flames that captivated two generations of Varner men.
The bulk of Varner’s narrative takes place in his childhood, much of which is spent in the family trailer with his mother, both of them wishing for Denton to return home. Burdened with the guilt over his father’s multiple arsons, Denton spends his days working in a factory and almost all his remaining free time at the local volunteer fire house. His relationship with his son is strained, and even when the Varners do go out as a family they must live under Denton’s ‘fireman first’ rules:
McDonald’s is the only place other than home I remember us ever eating at. When a Pizza Hut opened in Lewistown, some of my friends at school talked about going there with their parents. The next time we went to McDonald’s, I tried to suggest [Pizza Hut]– “It’d probably take too long– to get our food,”Â he said. “If there’s a call, I have to be able to jump up and just go. Pizza Hut’s one of those places where you have to pay at the end of their meal.”Â
Jay misses the traditional father/son experience of playing catch and working together in the backyard, and even their vacations are truncated—whittled down to a single day spent in Hershey Park—so as to keep Denton close to McVeytown in case of a fire. Things get worse when Denton contracts a rare cancer and Jay begins to blame Lucky for his own missed opportunities with his father.
Denton, Jay and Jay’s mother, Teena, all serve as necessary components to the American working class story. Denton is hard working to a fault. Jay suffers the effects of an absent father and the tanking economy of the rust belt. Acting as the strong-willed matriarch, Teena steers the family towards the shaky promise of upward mobility even during their darkest hours. The most unpredictable character in the book–and easily its most interesting–is Jay’s grandfather Lucky. He steals every scene right from the very first page. A young Jay watches terrified as Lucky starts his weekly fire right across from the family trailer:
He lifted a five-gallon can of gasoline from the bed and doused the junk with gasoline. When the can was nearly empty, he stepped back from the pile and poured a trail of gas for five or so feet leading from the pit. He grabbed a handful of rats off the truck, and with a flick of his wrist he swung them like lassoes and tossed them into the pit. Next, he lit a match and dropped it to the ground. Flames rose on the path he had poured and then rushed into the garbage, exploring into a wall of fire that flashed up toward the sky.
Varner succeeds in creating a memorable and truly menacing character. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Lucky chews up the scenery every time he appears, whether it’s while bringing a convicted pedophile around his young grandson or overseeing his creepy boarding house for drifters. Like Dwight in This Boy’s Life or Gary Fincke’s father in The Canals of Mars, Lucky stands as an imposing force over what would otherwise be tender coming-of-age tales.
Structurally, the book is tight and only stumbles when Jay returns to McVeytown as a college graduate reporting on fires and obits for the local paper. Thematically, this section makes sense and rounds out the generational connection (Lucky the arsonist, Denton the firefighter, Jay the fire reporter), but it doesn’t add much to the moving childhood narrative, with the exception of a late-book familial secret no reviewer should reveal. Adding to the problem is that these sections are told in the present tense. Obviously, this device is used to distance these sections from the childhood ones, but because the reporter scenes are so ruminative and reflective, they seem strange in the present tense.
But these are minor complaints. Nothing Left to Burn still stands as a very strong debut book from a talented new voice in not only creative nonfiction, but fiction as well. Varner’s concerns are undeniably human and relatable: family, death, mania. At its heart, Varner’s memoir is the story of a grandson trying to decode the obsession that led both his grandfather and father to ruin. Keep tabs on this Jay Varner kid, folks. I think we’ll be hearing more from him in the years to come.