Jay Varner tells us up front that his memoir Nothing Left To Burn is about his “complicated history with fire”. However, what unfolds with the speed and avidity of a blaze is much more than that; it’s the story of his family’s twisted relationship to fire and Varner’s gradual recognition of his legacy.
Three months out of college, Varner takes a job he needs, covering the fire and obit beat for the newspaper in his tiny central Pennsylvania hometown. He knows fires and he knows death – his father, Denton, was the town’s fire chief. Denton’s father, however, was the town’s serial arsonist.
Varner grows up terrified of his grandfather, equating his nickname “Lucky” with “Lucifer”. In one of our first views of Lucky, he’s indeed Satanic, burning sacks filled with dead rats in a pit behind the Varner’s trailer home. Lucky contemplates his handiwork in the company of his friend Ricky Trutt, a man so sinister that Jay’s mother Teena locks the door to keep Jay safe.
Jay’s father is obsessed with fire in an opposite way. He lives to extinguish them. Denton is the town’s fire chief, beloved by the town and adored by Jay, even while he promises “some day soon” for every father and son opportunity, working in a door factory or fighting fires instead of building a tree house or teaching Jay to ride a bike. Firefighting defines Denton Varner, and Jay imagines his father as Batman, responding to Commissioner Gordon’s bat signal in the sky.
Varner writes beautifully of fire. His readers have seen fire, perhaps been burned, but rarely does an author convey emotional intensity and longing with phrases like the “stale and blistered scent” of smoke, or the roar of flames sounding like a “jet engine”.
Jay’s father develops cancer, and even weak from treatment responds to calls from the firehouse. Varner compare a fire’s “hotspot” – the term for a lurking fire that catches again – to his father’s illness – cancer that ultimately, like fire, reignites and takes his father’s life. Teena’s insistence on a private funeral, rather than a traditional firefigher’s funeral, estranges her and Jay from Denton’s firefighter’s community.
It’s Teena, who suffered Lucky’s smoldering presence with Jay, who finally allows her benevolent father to tell Jay the family’s true story: why Denton was obsessed with fighting fire, and the criminal extent of Lucky’s pyromania. The revelation of Denton’s potential culpability in his father’s crimes is the true turning point of the book, and the moment that begins to free Jay from his complicated father and grandfather.
Good memoir bears witness to the past and illuminates the author’s road into the present. Nothing Left to Burn sparks and burns brightly, allowing Varner and his readers to rise from the ashes of a complicated family.