Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nothing Left To Burn

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited about a new book as I am for Jay Varner’s memoir Nothing Left to Burn. I was eager to read it after seeing Sal Pane’s review in Pank, where I first learned of the book and discovered that it was by a writer from my hometown of McVeytown in central Pennsylvania – and I was not disappointed reading this fascinating story of a family consumed by family secrets and an obsession with fire. Varner, who earned his BA in creative writing at Susquehanna University and his MFA at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, crafts a compelling narrative about growing up terrified by his grandfather’s fire fetish. I honestly had trouble putting the book down until I reached the end – and as soon as I finished it, my husband picked it up and also read it in record time.

Farms at the edge of McVeytown, PA
photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

McVeytown was actually the nearest town to where I grew up. Both my family and Varner’s family had homes in what was known as R.D.#1, outside the village of 400-or-so residents. That area remains fairly ru
ral with lush hill farms nestled between the ridges of Jacks Mountain along the Juniata River. I’ve yet to meet Jay in person, but in such a small community there is only about one degree of separation between everyone. I’ve discovered we have many connections in common, which added a layer of spookiness to reading the book for me. I’d grown up hearing rumors of the fires Jay’s grandfather, Lucky Varner, had set – including the arsons of two homes of his own which burned to the ground.

Fire connects the Varner men. Lucky Varner (Jay’s grandfat
her) was a pyromaniac and serial arsonist. Lucky’s son, Denton Varner (Jay’s father) became the local fire chief. And after Jay grew up, he became a reporter on the local newspaper covering fire and accident reports and writing obituaries.

McVeytown, PA
Photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Nothing Left to Burn is filled with twists and surprises and interesting characters. I was curious to learn the inside story about Lucky’s fires, and it was fascinating for me to read Varner’s description of an area I know well. I do not quite see the town as he does, but realize that he experienced life there a generation after me. I’m of his father’s generation, so my experience of living there is probably closer to Denton Varner’s than to Jay’s. No matter which city or state I’ve lived in over the years, I’ve always carried that home place inside me and missed the rhythms of the seasons as marked by the planting and harvesting of crops on the neighboring farms. I haven’t resided there since the mid-1970s, so I still see the town as a charming old village of mostly well-tended lawns and homes, some of which are large stone and brick houses that date to the 1800s. There are hints indicating that things are getting a bit run-down, such as the sign on the post office that is becoming an eyesore (please, someone, restore the missing letters), but the landscape is one of rural beauty. There’s no question about it now being an economically depressed area since many of the long time industries have closed down, including the farm machinery manufacturer where my dad worked his entire life (the same factory that I learned from the book that Denton Varner also worked at for a time).

Post Office, McVeytown, PA
Photo copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Algonquin, the book’s publisher, issued a newsletter with an interview with Jay about the writing of his book. When Varner was asked how his hometown would react to his book, he responded, “. . . I hope they would be happy that a native son has managed to tell this story. I was careful not to sugarcoat things – I deeply love the town, but leaving out the negatives would do the area an injustice. There are many problems – economic strangulation, educational shortcomings, drug abuse – that must be addressed. However, there are a lot of things that are right and distinctive about the area. And I hope that I have rendered both ends of that spectrum truthfully.” He goes on to say, “My biggest fear is that a protective shroud will befall the town and residents will go on the defensive.”

When asked about his mother who did not want him to write this book, he said, “I’ve done my best to be true to the characters and events. . . . I understand the hesitance not to want this story on bookshelves, but in my hometown, most everyone already knows part of this story to begin with, so I’m not sure much is lost in telling this. . . . However, just as this is my story, it’s also hers, and anyone certainly has the right to be protective of such a thing.” He went on to say, “But in my eyes, it only makes my father a greater man. He gave an awful lot to that town and never asked for anything in return.”

Jay writes of how as a young boy he yearned to spend more time with his father, who was always rushing off to answer fire and ambulance calls. Even though Denton was the fire chief, it was a volunteer position in a volunteer fire company, and he worked a fulltime job as a laborer in a factory to support his family. To young Jay, it seemed that his father was always gone – either at work or at the firehouse. He tells of how his dad was often the first responder to an accident or emergency call, arriving in his pick-up truck even before the ambulance arrived on the scene (he was also certified as an emergency m
edical technician). When I read that, I remembered how when my dad suffered a massive heart attack one Sunday afternoon there was an EMT who arrived in a pick-up truck who came in carrying an oxygen tank even before the ambulance arrived. I’ve since learned that man was Denton Varner.

Jay credits his stint as a reporter for the local newspaper as helping him distance himself enough to tackle difficult topics, saying: “That forced me to hold every story at arm’s length and approach topics with an i
mpartial view . . . to teach me to tackle these memories without such emotional attachment. I was still connected, obviously, but I almost had to look at these events and people as though they were from the life of somebody else before actually understanding how they related to me.” But it was as an undergraduate in creative writing at Susquehanna University, prior to working as a reporter, that he first learned to craft stories. Varner said, “That’s when I saw people could actually examine and confront issues in their life. And I realized that to really understand who I was going to become as a man, I had to examine all that had happened in the past.”

In Nothing Left to Burn, Varner confronts that past – the good and the bad. About his grandfather, Lucky, Jay says: “It’s hard for me to call him simply bad. I think the man had a genuine mental illness with pyr
omania. He may have well been a sociopath too. To me, it was a sickness, not a badness.” About his father, Denton, Jay says: “He was a good man, but ultimately deeply conflicted about the roots of his values. He tried his best but made some poor decisions. Both men were incredibly complex and wrestled with much of that internally. My father wasn’t really torn between becoming a bad or good person, but his priorities were sometimes jumbled due to what he’d experienced as a child. In his heart, he wanted to do what was right.”

Jay’s book has me thinking about communities and our perceptions of home, and about how things constantly change – even in places like McVeytown. It’s true that people there can sometimes be very clannish, separated by geographic, religious and political divides – obstacles any outsider would have difficulty breaking through. It’s interesting that Lucky Varner remained part of that community even though it was common knowledge he was a danger to people’s lives and property – something that would not have been condoned of an outsider. Only an insider could have told this story as Jay has, and he has told it well. He builds a powerful story from ashes by piecing to together what remained – memory, artifacts, and the accounts told to him by others.

Author Jay Varner

• Be sure to watch the book trailer, which is nicely done.

• For a taste of Jay’s writing, read “Farm Machines” online at Quicksilver.

Jay Varner will be appearing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh on October 6th at 7 PM. Check out his schedule for appearances in other locations at his website.

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JV said...


What a wonderful write-up. Thank you so much. You are the first person from McVeytown who has read this. I have to say, the story you mentioned about my father showing up before the ambulances... Wow, that brought a tear to my eye. Just amazing. Look forward to seeing you in Pittsburgh.


Dory Adams said...

Jay, I'm looking forward to meeting you too! Thanks so much for stopping in to say hello at my blog. All best wishes to you -- you've written a wonderful book.

JV said...

Dory, you can't imagine how much that means to me. My family is very concerned about how people still in and from the area will react. It's great to hear such nice things. It means the world to me.

Robin Cuneo said...

Under the "Small World" heading, my sister, who lives near Boston, just sent me the trailer to the book last night after hearing it on Boston NPR. I ordered it immediately, and now just stumbled upon your blog, which is lovely. I keep Googling McVeytown because I'm writing a fictional mystery set there for National Novel Writing Month!
The small world comes in with the fact that my late father, Jack Johnson Dile, grew up there. His parents were Lewis and Effie, and his aunt and uncle were Marg Johnson and her brother Abe (Frank) as well as Jack and Grace Johnson. My dad's cousin was Peck Kirk, married to retired postmistress Helen. The Dile's lived on one side of the Masonic building on Market Street, and Marg and Abe lived in the lovely old homestead on the other side at the corner of Water St.
My family still has a cabin about four miles outside town on Jack's Mountain off Ferguson Valley. I must say, anytime over my life I've been homesick, it has been for McVeytown, even though I never lived there, but did vist LOTS. We were raised in Titusville, PA, where my dad was high school principal. I live in Findley Lake, NY with my husband, who's an editor at Erie Times-News. I retired as a reporter from there after 25 years due to four spine surgeries.
Anyhow, this is just wonderful! I hope Jay's book is a huge hit. He deserves much success for being really courageous.
So delighted to find you!
Robin Cuneo

Dory Adams said...

Hi Robin,
Small world indeed -- glad you found my blog and Jay's book! Wishing you all the best for a productive writing month on your mystery novel for NaNoWriMo. Who knew McVeytown would be such an inspiration for writers?

Robin Cuneo said...

I've always thought McVeytown was magical. Maybe easier for me to see that not living there, but it's a GORGEOUS place. Except what happened to all the trees? There used to be tons of horse chestnuts?! Best wishes in your writing, also. Expecting Jay's book today!