Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nothing Left to Burn by Jay Varner

Jay's father, Denton, was the chief of a volunteer fire department in a small town.  His career started early, and he rose to be one of the town's most recognizable mascots.  He was known for his devotion to the community and his singular focus on both preventing and fighting fires.  It comes as little surprise in the reading that Denton's own father, Lucky, was an arsonist.   Jay describes growing up in such a volatile environment, where much of the community was clued in to the disparate activities of his father and grandfather.  It's clear that one man was trying to find redemption for the deeds of his father.

Memoirs are tough to read, and I imagine they'd be hard to write. You don't have the luxury of fiction to soften the blows or shine a more flattering light on yourself as you would a created character. Jay Varner even acknowledges that there would have been no way to write this fictionally-no one would be able to believe it all. After much thought, no doubt weighing the consequences, he decides to write the story of his family. What he exposes is painful and ugly and improbable, yet it rings true.

The history begins with Jay's return to his small hometown, complete with a new job as a journalist with the local paper.  The community appears amused by this latest generation of Varner, especially in that his beat includes reporting fires.  Jay alternates between present and past as he reveals his childhood, the death of his father, and his own changing face in the community.  At moments, when discussing his father's frequent absences, his words uncover the pain he felt at being secondary to the needs of others.  In discussing the procedures of writing obituaries and local fires and accidents, his words seem almost profound as he describes the numbness that envelopes him after he gets used to the frequent suicides and accidents.  He is meticulous in his details, and while it's not fiction, many twists still surprise the reader.  He clearly wants to find the link that would explain both men's fixations on fire, and yet their completely differing acts.  To the last page, astonishing details are revealed. 

And I said at first, memoirs are difficult because of what they reveal.  Perhaps because I've been reading a great deal about Siberia and the Holocaust, I feel a bit impatient with Varner's more childish complaints.  He repeats continually during the first half of the book how often his father abandoned him for others, and recounts in detail all the milestones of his life that his father missed.  It's clear that it caused him pain then, as well as now.  In the second half of the book, in the aftermath of his father's death, he still tends to focus on what he and his mother missed out on, and how the community shut them out. Not to minimize his pain, but his focus seems to be inordinately about his own disappointments rather than searching out their cause.  Towards the end, he does acknowledge that there must have been reasons for the strange behavior of his grandfather, but he doesn't go any deeper.

Since he was trained as a journalist, I would have expected him to cover both sides of his family's history, yet he admits most of his information about the past comes from his mother and his mother's family.  This omission seems a bit jarring, especially in that he clearly dislikes his father's family and spends a large portion of the text with a negative focus on them.  There isn't a single positive thing said about them, the focus being only on their crazy behavior and his sense of embarrassment of being connected to them.  While his memoir is undoubtedly gripping, I'm left with a sense that there's even more to the story.

Special thanks to Algonquin for the Review Copy. 
Blogger isn't permitting me to upload the cover photo at this time.


  1. Great review. And i totally agree with you, Memoirs are difficult to read because of what they reveal about the author. I think that he still has some unresolved issues with his father and his father's family, hence the slant in his novel. Nonetheless, Nothing Left to Burn sounds like a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I like your review and you are right. There is much more to the story.

    I am from McVeytown, and am disappointed in Varner's book. He claims people won't talk about the fires—which happened 40 years ago! All Varner would have had to do was ask, but he chose not to do talk to anyone who knows the true story.

    He crucifies his grandmother Helen, whose only crime was trying to establish a relationship with him. She was a sweet person, a much loved mother, sister and friend of many. He claims that she and Lucky never did anything for him, yet admits that they bought him a bicycle, gave them a TV, transported them to the hospital when his father was sick, and left money for him in their will. And if he would have asked them, his grandmother's friends could have told him how Helen often cried because she wasn't allowed to see him—her grandson.

    He claims that his uncle "Curt" celebrated when he found out that he wasn't a match for Denton's bone marrow transplant. That is a lie. Both brothers were the first to come forward to be tested. All three of the Varner boys were close. They were very popular, good students, and Eagle Scouts, Lucky and Helen could not have been that bad of parents.

    It is jarring when he says at the end that his father Denton is his hero. You wouldn't know that by the way he writes about him.

    Plus the way he depicts the people of McVeytown as uneducated rednecks is laughable. McVeytown is home to Common Ground Magazine, a regional magazine that has subscribers in every state. See their website to get a true picture of McVeytown and the Juniata River Valley where the town is located: or visit them on Facebook!

    Varner wasn't even born when much of what he writes about took place, so this book is not his memoir, but filled with other people's prejudices that he was exposed to at an early age.

    Instead of seeking the truth, Varner chose to write lies that are destroying his relationships with his family and his hometown. Like his grandfather, Jay Varner is a destroyer not a builder. Only difference is that instead of a match, he used a pen.

    Varner even got the title of his book wrong, because it is obvious that something is still burning—Varner's deep hatred of his father's family and his hometown.

  3. I began the book with an open mind, though my grandfather was raised in McVeytown. I was impressed at first at how the story started, but then it all just fell apart. I kept finding my jaw dropping at how horribly Varner spoke about the people of the town, telling about conversations that he "remembers" from when he was very young. He made a fool of both sides of his family. I can't believe that he had the audacity to write this book slandering people he once called family and friends. No one was safe from his verbal slams, not even the dead. It was bad enough that he essentially spit on his father's, grandfather's and grandmother's graves, it got even worse that he has shamed, embarrassed and hurt his surviving family members to the point of physical illness, and just when I thought that he couldn't possible top all that, he proceded to merrily dance thejig while reliving horrible accidents and deaths that he covered. Yes, people outside the area do not know the unnamed and renamed suicide and accident victims mentioned in the book, but the families of these deceased know. Is the 15 minutes of fame that Varner is getting for this book really worth all the pain and suffering he has caused based on information that he has been bouncing around in his head for 20 years while taking "creative writing" classes? I

  4. Hey, no knocking creative writing classes here! LOL

    Seriously, I can see this subject is a sore one for many, and I do agree, there seemed to be a little more obvious disdain and harshness in it than you would expect from a journalist.