Home Is Burning
As we join our hero, self-described “spoiled white asshole” Dan Marshall, he is with his girlfriend. They are celebrating her 24th birthday by “eating and fucking” through an idyll at a resort when he learns that his father, Bob, has been diagnosed with ALS, or motor neurone disease. This, when his mother is already battling terminal cancer.
Home Is Burning is a memoir of terminal illness, about a family brought together to watch their patriarch die – one designed to be unapologetically cheerful in the face of tragedy. Marshall, his mother, and his four siblings converge on their home town of Salt Lake City, Utah, to care for Bob, and promptly implode as a family unit, then rebuild considerably stronger thanks to a series of blackly comic misadventures. It is already being developed into a movie starring Miles Teller (Whiplash).
The task of a debut memoirist is an unenviable one. They must introduce themselves as a worthy narrator, persuade you of the value of their story, make characters of their loved ones and carve a satisfying narrative arc out of lived experience, all while trying to establish a voice. It’s that voice that’s the weakest link here: a rapid-fire discourse on the fraternal relationship and terminal illness that’s prone to frequent, often scatological, asides. The author likes to swear. Imagine a midwestern Proust raised on South Park DVDs instead of madeleines.
Marshall’s family make for a rogues’ gallery that brings the book to life. There’s the gay brother back in Utah where his kind aren’t welcome, a teen sister with a drinking problem and an inappropriate older boyfriend. The mother who vows to perform oral sex on her dying husband once a day until the end. “ ‘A blow job a day. Not a bad deal,’ I heard her explain to a visitor. ‘You wouldn’t think it, but his penis is still strong.’ ”
The portrait of a deeply idiosyncratic family facing death head-on is where this book is strongest. It’s also where the cracks show, in Marshall’s propensity to mine his loved ones for gags that can feel voyeuristic, and as his voice sometimes veers from a playful immaturity to simply undeveloped. The book is raw but carefully calculated to teeter between profane and heartwarming. It’s a tale from a PR man, full of sound and fury, but has much to recommend it. At the least, you’ll learn more than you ever cared to know about the genitals of a palliative care patient. ZC
Hodder & Stoughton, 320pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "Dan Marshall, Home Is Burning ". Subscribe here.