Nothing Left to Burn book review

You can understand what makes a monster tick, but their acts are still monstrous

Book review, Time In
Jay Varner


How’s this for kismet: Varner’s grandfather Lucky was an arsonist who lit weekly bonfires and increasingly dangerous blazes. His father, Denton, was the chief of the McVeytown volunteer fire department in Pennsylvania. After Denton’s death, Varner returned home to live with his mother, Teena, and to cover the fire and police departments for the local paper.

There are novelistic memoirs, and then there are memoirs with premises that seem ripped straight from the fiction shelves. Which is not to say that Varner has varnished the truth at all, rather just to note the rich material at play here. His father is practically a ghost, working at a factory during the day and devoting his free time to the fire department. Lucky flickers menacingly in and out of the picture – even Varner’s later grasping at what makes pyromaniacs start all that ruin achieves little. You can understand what makes a monster tick, but their acts are still monstrous.

At its core, the book is about the way we spend half our lives trying to understand the people who brought us into this world. The arsonist’s son became a fire chief, whose son became a writer to figure out them both. The return of Varner to his hometown to take care of his mother and cover the fire beat provides a neat generational tie-in, though the drama of a reporter pales next to fire chief and serial arsonist.

Though Varner clearly sharpened his chops, his writing is reporterly with lovely lyrical flourishes. After watching his grandfather light mattresses on fire, he writes, ‘The glowing embers looked like a thousand wicked eyes peering through the darkness.’

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