Tidewater Review - March 2011


Nothing Left to Burn
Anne Stinson


Nothing Left to Burn, A Memoir by Jay Varner, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 304 pages, $23.95. ISBN: 9781565126091
Jay Varner opens this memoir of his conflicted life with a vignette in his prologue to the story. He’s five years old and his grandfather “Lucky” and a friend have just arrived for a routine Saturday morning ritual. The two men unload two truckloads of trash to burn in a pit near the trailer where Jay and his parents live. This week’s trash load is dozens of old mattresses from the shabby hotel Lucky owns.
Gasoline is dumped on the ugly pile, then more gas is poured in a trail safely away from the incipient blaze. A match is dropped, and in seconds a column of fire and black smoke rises into the sky with a shuddering whomp of noise that almost stops the boy’s heart and breath.
Jay is too young to know what’s common knowledge in their small town in central Pennsylvania. Grandfather Lucky is a serial arsonist. He’s also a crude, curt and rude man that Jay’s afraid of. Unknown to the boy, Lucky spent three years in prison for previous fires – he burned up his new car, then the house his family lived in, built another on his property and torched that one too. By this time, the insurance investigators smelled a pattern and spearheaded Lucky’s conviction. Holes in the lawn were lasting evidence of Lucky’s destruction, mere hollow walls of cinder block foundations filled with unsightly piles of rubble.
Lucky’s son is Jay’s adored father. He’s a town hero. He’s the fire chief, always the first man on the job, the last to leave a fire call, utterly devoted to his volunteer position. Day or night, he wears a pager on his belt or beside his pillow. It’s wired to the scanner in the firehouse, and at its call he leaps from the dinner table, the bed or his factory job and races to the burning site.
Most evenings he’s at the firehouse training his crew, and weekends often take him away from home to conventions, meetings of local fire companies or organizing fundraising activities for the unit. The fire company is his number one interest in life.
Young Jay’s primary interest is his dad, whom he adores. He longs to share time with his father, to go fishing, to play catch with him in the yard before supper, to sit and watch TV together like his friends’ fathers do. It never happens.
His dad is loving but apologetic. The fire company depends on him, he explains. Jay’s mother is his ally in yearning for the mostly absent family member. Like Jay, she loathes Lucky, loathes living in a decrepit trailer on Lucky’s property.
The mattress burn enraged her in particular. When she spotted Lucky’s cohort on the scene, she made Jay come into the trailer with her and locked all the doors and windows. Years later, Jay learned that Lucky had enlisted a prison buddy to help handle the bulky cargo and stay on to admire the conflagration. His mother recognized the helper – he did time for molesting young boys. Her outrage at Lucky’s effrontery provoked an outburst with her husband, who responded lamely that it angered him, too, but it was Lucky’s property and he had no say in whom Lucky brought on their lawn.
Jay’s world changes when his father dies young. Before he succumbed to cancer, he had replaced the old trailer with a double-wide, although Jay’s mother wanted a “real” house.
That’s the point where a red flag jumps out at the reader. Whoa! So far, there’s nothing explained about the fire chief’s decision to override his wife’s hatred of the property with its gaping holes in the ground with vivid reminders of Lucky’s pyromania. She hates the old man’s interference in her marriage, his mocking of his grandson Jay, his constant rudeness to her. Both Lucky and his wife are thorns in her side. Why, oh why, does her husband kowtow to his parents?
To add to her distress over the leaky new double-wide, the townspeople shun her the minute she is widowed. They resent her decision to have a private funeral for her husband; they thought he should have a huge show with fire companies in uniform from all the towns around the county, a parade to the cemetery, all the pomp and ceremony fit for a fire chief’s untimely death.
What’s more, Lucky was popular in the community in spite of his former disgrace. Perhaps the young widow stayed because her own thoroughly decent parents lived nearby. This reader was irritated by the situation long before its explanation (of a sort) was surmised near the end of the memoir.
Jay’s story advances with his college years and his inability to find employment, a turn of events that forced him to move back home with his mother. He was hired as a rookie reporter for the small weekly newspaper in a nearby town. His first reporting beat was covering traffic accidents and fires, plus writing all the obituaries. The fires terrified him at first, but he began to be drawn to the excitement, the drama and the devouring threat of blazes.
Was fascination with fire a subversion of genetic evil in his bloodline? A revelation about his father’s childhood hero worship of Lucky makes for a creepy finale to the memoir.
The book leaves the reader with the uncomfortable feeling that the author may never recover from his obsession with the past. He says his mother was very anxious about the book and may never read it. Her only request to Jay was that he make it clear that she did not want him to share the family’s secrets.
I agree. It’s an ugly and disturbing story.