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 yet...as 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.
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