Home Is Burning: A Memoir by Dan Marshall
|Home Is Burning: A Memoir by Dan Marshall|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: At age 25, Dan Marshall went home to Salt Lake City, Utah to care for a father with ALS and a mother with leukaemia. He and his four hapless siblings approached caregiving with sarcasm and dirty humour. Gleefully foul-mouthed, his memoir lacks introspective depth.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: October 2015|
|Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton|
Dan Marshall thought he had a perfect life. He lived in Los Angeles, where he worked for a cutting-edge public relations firm and had an attractive girlfriend. Sure, his mother, Debi, had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but she had been living with it for 14 years and seemed no worse than ever. Cancer was normal for their family; it didn't interfere with Marshall's favourite activity, 'acting like a spoiled white asshole.' When his father, Bob, was diagnosed with ALS, however, it was a different story. All five siblings in this Sedaris-like clan would have to pull together to help Bob cope with the ravages of Lou Gehrig's disease.
In 2007 Marshall, aged 25, moved back to Salt Lake City, Utah to live at home and help his dad. To start with, Bob was able to valiantly continue with his bucket list, participating in the Boston marathon and trying helicopter skiing. He declined quickly, however; before long he could hardly move his arms and was hooked up to a breathing machine and computerised communication device like Stephen Hawking's. The Marshalls had to hustle to make the house wheelchair accessible, and despite all the horsing around Dan and his brother Greg did while engaged in the day-to-day drudgery of feeding and cleaning a paralysed parent, there were some serious scares including an emergency tracheotomy and time in a rehab facility.
Now that I was back taking care of my dying parents, Marshall recalls, people started to treat me like I was a tragic figure with a heart of gold, instead of a dickhead. People would tell him your whole family is so brave and strong and he'd reply Really? I think we're a bunch of idiots. You can see both sides here: yes, Marshall and his siblings were incompetent, but they showed their love for their father by simply showing up and doing all the worst tasks – including toilet duty – even when they didn't want to.
It wasn't just ALS and cancer: everything went wrong in the two years that form Marshall's autobiography. Faced with all this family drama, his girlfriend dumped him. His sister Michelle, only in high school, had a drinking problem and ended up marrying her Mormon soccer coach despite the whole family's opposition; soon enough she was pregnant. You can tell Marshall delights in his gloriously dysfunctional family. His mother, wandering around bald and eating nothing but yoghurt, is particularly amusing, and Stana, the Polish cleaning lady with a vendetta against the family's poorly trained cats, is similarly entertaining.
A key problem, though, is that Marshall usually doesn't go beyond stereotypes. He hardly ventures deeper than initial descriptions like My gay brother, Greg and adopted Native American sister, Michelle. And even when his sentiments about his father are sincere, they are conveyed via what sound like clichés: I wanted my poor dad to get better, not worse and Though watching him struggle with this horrific disease was the worst thing I had been through, I didn't want it to end.
The perennial advice to budding writers is 'show, don't tell', but Marshall frequently – lazily – resorts to telling, as in I was physically breaking down. … I had a full-blown case of caregiver fatigue … Depression was consuming me. What's more, the book is packed with gratuitous cursing, drug and alcohol use, and raunchy sex talk. Marshall is trying to be an unassuming Everyman, free of literary pretensions, but his determined flippancy undermines the importance of his family's story.
That said, this is an enjoyable book with a rollicking pace. You may well find it addictive in places. The fact that it started off as a blog helps account for its baggy, unpolished state; with ruthless revision and deeper reflection, a book of two-thirds this length could be irresistible. Still, to my surprise, Marshall made me cry in the end. Bob was in a unique situation: he decided when to go off the respirator, so the family knew exactly when he would die and were able to micromanage his last days and funeral. In a fantastic fictional section, Marshall imagines his father's elaborate farewell, in which he takes a symbolic run through his life story and says goodbye the way he would have wanted.
This invented chance at closure was proof to me that Marshall has an eye for fiction – especially when he cuts down on the obscenities (there are only seven in the last chapter and epilogue, noticeably fewer than in the rest of the book). I wondered whether writing his family's story as a novel would have allowed him to be less self-consciously glib. As he remarks early on, our home is burning to the ground with tragedy; this memoir does not really do justice to that family tragedy, but with practice Marshall could be a talent to watch.
Further reading suggestion: The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell is a YA novel with an ALS theme. For a more heartfelt picture of being a carer to someone with a muscular disorder, see The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.
You can read more book reviews or buy Home Is Burning: A Memoir by Dan Marshall at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Home Is Burning: A Memoir by Dan Marshall at Amazon.com.
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