Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wednesday, September 2, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Home Is Burning


Flatiron: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Flatiron: Homes is Burning by Dan Marshall

Flatiron: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Flatiron: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Home Is Burning

by Dan Marshall

Dan Marshall's life was pretty heavy on privilege. A self-described spoiled white kid with money, he grew up in Salt Lake City and then graduated from UC Berkeley, and was busy enjoying his first real job in Los Angeles and his first real girlfriend, Abby. His family--mom, dad and four siblings--wasn't perfect, but they were happy, loving and shared a strong if quirky sense of humor, based on fart jokes and four-letter words. His mother had had "terminal" cancer well managed for nearly 15 years. Then came the phone call, while Dan was on vacation with Abby, announcing that his capable, marathon-running father had been diagnosed with something called ALS.

ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a terminal neurodegenerative disease that kills off motor neurons, eventually depriving the person affected of the ability to move his own limbs, eat, speak, and breathe. Dan was slow to accept the gravity of the diagnosis, but under pressure from the family, after several months, he takes a leave of absence from his job to move home at age 25 to help out around the house. Home Is Burning is his memoir of caring for two terminally ill parents at once while dealing with a houseful of rowdy siblings with problems of their own. His story is unavoidably terribly sad, but peppered with sex, drugs both prescribed and recreational, copious foul language, lots of alcohol, and deep and abiding love, the Marshall family saga is surprisingly sweet and funny as well.

Although Dan describes them as spoiled and rich, the Marshalls have had their fair share of misfortunes, from mother Debi's cancer diagnosis and years of chemotherapy treatments to cerebral palsy and Asperger's syndrome among the children. The eldest sibling, Tiffany, who took over some parenting duties as a teenager when Debi was sick, had become an overachiever apparently teetering at the edge of a nervous breakdown. Greg was a successful college student in Chicago, enjoying his freedom after finally coming out of the closet. Still in high school were Chelsea, a socially awkward ballerina and serious student, and Michelle, a budding alcoholic in a disturbing relationship with her soccer coach. Dan was the second child, and the last to move back to Salt Lake City for their father Bob's remaining time, which would more likely be measured in months than years.

Dan lingered in the denial stage of the grief process. With the whole family, he'd watched Bob run his last marathon in Boston, in a time nearly twice that which he'd run to qualify. But when Dan moves home, he is dismayed to see how much his father has already deteriorated. With Tiffany living nearby but on her own, "the little girls" still in high school, and Debi inconveniently faced with her toughest round of chemo treatments yet, the bulk of Bob's caregiving duties falls to Dan and Greg. Together they help him bathe and use the bathroom as he loses the use of his arms. They feed him through his gastrointestinal tube, and take him for walks in a wheelchair as his legs lose their strength. They hook him up periodically to his BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) machine, which helps push air through his lungs. Bob chooses to delay his tracheotomy surgery--which would attach him to a respirator for the rest of his days, and quite possibly end his ability to speak--to attend his own mother's funeral; but the ill-advised delay ends with a rush to the hospital when his breathing fails, and the procedure takes place under emergency conditions. Happily, Bob retains his speech.

For all Dan and Greg's love and good intentions, their caregiving is sometimes alarmingly poor: Bob is dropped on the floor, his respirator tubes cracked and broken. He might be considered lucky to survive his family's care. The household begins to fall apart: Michelle passes out in her own vomit with increasing frequency as the cats pee all over their three-story home, which has been pulled apart by construction to install an elevator and widen doorways. Dan begins drinking more heavily; Abby breaks up with him; Greg takes a full-time job, putting more pressure on Dan; Debi's behavior grows ever more erratic, with the mental effects of her chemotherapy, her distress at losing her husband, and a new addiction to pain pills. Dan's outlook and storytelling throughout these mounting stressors is singular. He is remarkably candid about his frustrations and resentments: he loves his father enormously, calling him his buddy, his pal, his road map through life, and describing the effortless quality time shared and advice given--but he is angry to have his own social freedoms curtailed.

The tone of Dan's writing in this painful period, however, is astonishingly funny, loving, even lighthearted. As he moves back and forth between agony, grief and anger, he displays a fun-loving, off-color, morbid sense of humor and an almost apologetically sweet expression of love for his entire imperfect family and especially their hero, their rock, Bob. Dan interjects his narrative with fantasies in which Debi's hair grows back, Chelsea doesn't giggle inappropriately at looming death, Michelle doesn't marry her soccer coach, Bob stands up and takes himself to the toilet and goes for a good long run in the mountains.

Many stories have been written about terminal illnesses, degrading deaths, and families in grief; but the loving portraits painted here of outrageous and colorful characters joking in the face of ugliness may be unique. As Bob approaches his final chapter, readers will certainly cry, but they will laugh as well. Home Is Burning is a strangely packaged gift: love and pain, death and life, sex jokes, fart jokes and plenty of booze make up an extraordinarily heartwarming love letter from "a sad dude with a big heart who really loves his dad." In its sad ending there is unlikely joy. --Julia Jenkins

Flatiron Books, $27.99, hardcover, 9781250068828

Flatiron: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall


Dan Marshall: Self-Deprecation and Happiness

photo: Sharon Suh

Dan Marshall grew up in a nice home with nice parents in Salt Lake City, Utah, before attending UC Berkeley. After college, Marshall went to work at a strategic communications public relations firm in Los Angeles. At 25, he left work and returned to Salt Lake City to take care of his sick parents. While caring for them, he started writing detailed accounts about many of their weird, sad, funny adventures. Home is Burning is his first book. He is currently working on adapting it into a screenplay.

Your Facebook notes and blog posts fed into what became the book. What does the writing process look like when you have all that material to start with?

It was a fairly unique process. The blog was mainly shorter posts: funny conversations, short stories and a lot of lists. When I decided to write the book, I aggregated all the blog posts, and then read through them. The blog was a lot cruder than the book (if you can believe it), and was focused more on trying to make people laugh than on the sentimental moments from the story. So a lot had to change.

The blog also didn't really have a theme other than, "S**t is bad." So in reviewing all the material (about 900 pages worth), I had to figure out first what I was trying to say with all this writing--what theme or message I was trying to get across. I started to realize that it's really a story about a selfish, spoiled kid finally facing something real, and thus being forced to sort of grow up. Once I realized that, it was a little easier to know what should stay from the blog and what should go. So I started trimming it down, cutting parts that didn't push the story forward or relate to the theme, and adding a few parts that helped to fill in some of the gaps that I didn't cover in the blog.

Overall, it was a tedious process.

Was writing this book terribly painful, or cathartic?

Certain things--like when my dad announced his desire to die, the Abby break-up, my dad's eventual death--are always painful to relive and write about. I usually had to take a lot of walks while working on those sections to calm myself down.

Also, the voice I write in is rather dark and sad. So, getting into that morbid headspace is always painful. Whenever I was jumping into a rewrite or going through the book again, I would tell myself, "Okay, you're going to be sad and feel like shit for a couple of months," then start writing.

However, writing the book was also really cathartic, especially when I discovered the themes of the book. It was like, "Wow, that was horrible, but I learned a lot." You learn more from pain than pleasure, so I think writing the book made me wiser. I'm a lot smarter than my friends with living parents.

This is going to sound sappy, but the book was also an opportunity to hang out with my dad again. I could bring him back to life and relive some happy memories. So, that aspect of it brought me a lot of joy. Then, each time I'd finish writing, I'd miss my dad even more. So, I'd fall into a bit of a depression for a few weeks. Nothing that a few burritos can't cure, though.

Are you this amazingly self-deprecating in real life?

I start everyday by looking in the mirror and booing. Just kidding. I don't do that.

But I do have a genuine hatred for myself that runs deep. I feel like a little self-hatred is healthy, but I probably overdo it. I'm pretty hard on myself, which is funny on the page, but sort of a drag to live with. I feel really worn down by myself all the time. Sometimes I want to yell, "Leave me alone!" at myself.

I think self-deprecating humor is a defense mechanism because I figure if I think the worst about myself, then I can't be shocked by anything bad anyone says about me. I do need to work on being nicer to myself. Whenever I'm going on a self-deprecating tangent, my mom always says, "Stop saying so many mean and hurtful things about someone I love." I should follow her advice.

You share an awful lot of painful personal detail here, both your own and others'. How do you decide where to draw the line? Do you draw a line? Was your family involved in those decisions?

In writing this, I made a commitment to revealing everything and being as open and honest about the experience and my life as possible. I don't think it'd be that entertaining to read if I were holding back.

Also, I wanted people to know what it was actually like to care for a person with Lou Gehrig's disease. It's such a horrible disease, and I think if people were aware of what actually goes into caring for someone with the illness, then more people would donate money toward trying to solve the ALS puzzle. You wouldn't think it, but like 60% of the care you do for someone who is bedridden is bathroom stuff. So I figured I needed to address all that to give readers the full experience.

When it comes to stuff about me, nothing is off-limits. When it comes to stuff about others, I try to be a little more selective. It's so hard to have some a**hole write about you, so if someone asks me to take something out of the book, I usually do. But I do try to push it. I often ask, "How much can I reveal about this person and still have them love me?" It varies from person to person. My brother Greg is a writer, so he's basically okay with anything about him.

My sisters and mom, however, were a little taken aback when they first read the book. My mom's initial reaction was, "F**k you Danny and f**k your book." She's since forgiven me and has been incredibly supportive of the book.

Generally, though, my family has been really good sports about this. They realize that this is a story about our dad more than anything. And they realize that I'm as hard on myself as I am them.

You relate some shocked reactions to your off-color and morbid sense of humor generally. What reactions do you anticipate to the book?

I think the book will get a mixed reaction. Some people will probably really enjoy it. And some people will absolutely hate it. I find that people over 80 tend to not get my sense of humor, so I doubt I'll be asked to do readings at retirement communities or in Florida.

I'm prepared for all of my Mormon friends to hate me when the book comes out. In fact, I probably won't be allowed in the state of Utah anymore. I always get a little nervous when a Mormon friend tells me they've pre-ordered the book. I try to be especially nice to them so we can hopefully remain friends. I actually really love Mormons now. I didn't for a long time, but I realized through this that they're also just trying to get through life. 

But I hope people see what I was going for. I know it's crass, and crude, and contains South Park humor, but I hope they see past all the language and realize that at the core of it, this is a story about a guy learning to love his family and learning how to grow up. 

As a screenwriter, can you tell us what rating this book will receive onscreen?

It will receive an R-rating for sure.

What's next?

I try to keep busy because I'm not good at having hobbies so I get really anxious and bored when I'm not working. I'm working on the Home Is Burning adaptation for New Line Cinema now. Miles Teller is attached to play me and Jonathan Levine is directing.

I have a few other film projects I'm working on. One is a script called F**k Me, I'm Paralyzed (inspired by a true story) about a friend helping his paralyzed friend try to get laid for the first time since his accident. We're hoping to film in early 2016.

I'm also planning on writing another book that focuses on what life has been like after my dad passed, sort of an exploration about how to deal with moving on from loss and rebuilding yourself--trying to find happiness without the people who made you happy. --Julia Jenkins


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