Saturday, January 17, 2009

Light my fire!

Here's what I wrote about The Burn Journals when I read it four years ago: "A riveting diary-format story of a young man who immolates himself in the bathroom and then lives through a year of recovery, therapy and growth. He has a completely accessible voice, even though there is no indication that he kept a journal during the time; the entries seem honest and uninvented." This memoir by Brent Runyon tells of the year when he set himself on fire and how he made his initial recovery.

As an adult reader, this book can make you tear your hair out! How successful kids can be at keeping things from adults. Why did he think that (attempted) suicide was the only way to avoid the trouble he thought he would be in because he lit a fire in the boys' locker room? Does he really think that the therapists are just asking him questions to annoy him? And other more prosaic thoughts: Who's paying for all that medical care? Why won't his brother come to see him? What does he look like ... then? Now? And none of those answers are forthcoming. Yet that's what makes it such a brilliant document for teens.

I also enjoyed Christopher Evan Welch's interpretation of this memoir. He is very successful at sounding like a teenager -- perhaps not in timbre, but in delivery. (I'm very fond of his narration of The Last Apprentice series.) And in The Burn Journals he uses that skill to great effect. I could hear in his voice all of Brent's clashing emotions: fear, desperation, pain, tentativeness, puppy love (for one of his nurses), sucking up fandom (for Dennis Miller and Magic Johnson -- both of whom make a personal connection during his recovery (another unanswered question ... why?); and above all the veneer of sarcasm that enables Brent to distance himself from anyone who might possible cause him emotional pain. Most of the adults he deals with in this memoir are portrayed with excoriating contempt -- sounding pompous, ignorant, ineffectual; and I have no doubt that that was how Brent viewed them.

There was never a dull moment in Brent's year of recovery -- his curiosity about his restricted world keeps this memoir interesting. Yet I think I also kept listening for some answers -- obviously the big one being "why" -- some recognition of the effect of his act on others. And, ultimately, there weren't any answers ... but oddly that was OK. This made it more vivid, somehow, that this was just a stage of his journey.

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