Home is BurningHome is Burning by Dan Marshall
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

One hundred percent of our parents are terminally ill.

so, i mostly didn’t like this book.

and now you’re looking at me like i’m a heartless robot, “how can you hate on a memoir about a guy whose father has ALS and whose mother has cancer? you are a monster!!”

and maybe i am, but there was so much about this book that just pissed me off. i have put off writing this review for a long time, because i have this fundamental squeamishness when it comes to reviewing memoirs. it feels like judging a person’s life, and that’s uncomfortable for me. because i am nice.

but so much of this book made me uncomfortable.

and it’s not at all for the things that many readers will find problematic: the profanity and the crude humor.

because anyone who is cranky about that only has themselves to blame. in the preface, there’s ample cussin’ as well as a kiddie porn/catholic joke, some mormon-teasing, sex, porn, a reference to a sports team called “the chinks,” etc. he’s very up-front about his family’s reliance on profanity and irreverence. and i’m fine with that – i appreciate mordant humor and i have a potty-mouth myself.

but it’s the sheer incompetence of the way they handle their situation and the way they “care” for their father in his illness. and now we’re back to me and my problems with reviewing the memoir, because that roughly translates into – “dear stranger – you did a shitty job taking care of your father.” i don’t read many memoirs unless they are by an entertainer i like or if i hear such good things about the book that i am compelled to check it out. i read this for that group i used to read for, and i was kind of surprised that i was the only one who wasn’t feeling it. everyone else was calling it “brave” and “angry,” and “iconoclastic,” and i was finding it very difficult to see what they were responding to. because i don’t think it is very angry. i think it is petulant. and it’s not iconoclastic, it’s just got more dick jokes than your average illness-memoir. and brave just seems to mean willing to say “fuck” a lot and talk about how many blowjobs my mom gave my dad when he was suffering. that’s not really brave so much as unseemly. i’m no prude, but there’s a point where continued repetitive focus on things that are supposedly shocking causes even the most candid sharing of shit people don’t usually talk about to become… boring.

but to backtrack. so this is a family of self-proclaimed “rich white assholes.”


It was a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom, three-story redbrick mansion surrounded by pine, aspen, and cottonwood trees. It boasted a tennis court, a swimming pool, a trampoline, a drinking fountain, three pinball machines, hot tub, and a gazebo.

white is self-explanatory.


And it was a giant middle finger to all our Mormon neighbors. “Ha ha. We don’t even believe in God and we still have a better house than you,” we’d think.

it’s a family of seven, where the mother was diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1992, and spent most of her children’s lives sick. during that time, the father stepped up and basically raised the five kids himself while his wife suffered through chemo and blood transfusions and weakness but eventually rallied – fourteen years later still alive and kicking and cussing. and then suddenly, beloved dad is diagnosed with lou gherig’s disease, and the family falls apart.

this isn’t an inspirational story, and it’s not the david sedaris-style “my family is kooky,” this is actually alarming. the author’s fifteen year old adopted native american sister is an alcoholic frequently found covered in vomit in various places around the house, who steals their parents’ credit cards and who eventually runs off with her 35-year-old mormon soccer coach; a relationship that was tacitly acknowledged for at least a year. no one realizes that another sister has asperger’s (and is not just “immature”) until she is fifteen. she is also deaf in one ear and has kidney problems. the older brother is fine; he was born with cerebral palsy but has no lasting health issues, but his sexuality provides the author plenty of opportunities to make gay jokes. the oldest sister feels she shouldered the burden of helping raise all these brats when she was a teenager, and while she is the most conservative and level-headed of all the siblings, she’s very much looking for someone else to step up this time. and the author is the jester, the off-color clown who seems to take pride in how hapless and selfish he can be.

the punchline to “how many rich white assholes does it take to change a lightbulb:”

But we were so used to having our dad do everything that we didn’t know how to do anything. For example, once it took me forty-five minutes to change a lightbulb. I thought an old one had broken off in the socket. I had read somewhere that a potato could grip the bulb and spin it out. I started there. The potato didn’t work. Before I knew it I had an apple up there, then a banana, then a cantaloupe, then a Fruit Roll-Up, and then I went back to the potato. It turned out that all I had to do from the get-go was screw in a fresh bulb. In the end, the whole fixture was destroyed and smelled like the produce section of a grocery store.

and this guy is going to help care for his beloved dying father.

the book is all deliberate provocation and dark humor and intentionally making other people feel uncomfortable, even when his friends say to him – “dude, not cool.” he claims I was pretty desensitized to tragedy because my mom had been sick my whole life, but other people my age weren’t, but it seems more than just putting a brave and humorous face on tragedy. banding together and referring to the family as “team terminal” is one thing. realizations like I was attempting to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease with humor, but no one had the patience for come-on-the-face jokes. Things were getting really serious is also fine.

because i understand using humor as a defense mechanism.

“I know it sucks that Dad’s dying and all, but it’s pretty fucking sweet that we’re going to have an elevator in the house.”

i understand being so angry and frustrated that you just want to howl expletives into the world. i understand being caustic and flippant to avoid showing vulnerability or acknowledge your own grief.

They were holding hands and kissing all the time. It was sort of disgusting, really – a couple of dying fucks making out and shit.

but the number of times they slam their beloved father’s wheelchair into the doorway because they’re too busy goofing off to pay attention to what they’re doing, or the number of times they flat out don’t listen to the doctors’ instructions or fail to comprehend their father’s physical limitations, causing him more distress as he waits for someone to help him go to the bathroom – that’s not funny, that’s just fucked-up. there are so many scenes where doctors, nurses, neighbors are frustrated by their unwillingness to learn how to care for a terminal person, and it just doesn’t seem to make an impression.

it’s kind of shocking to read a book like this in which a family is plagued by so many problems and realize you have no sympathy at all for the author. he insists “we did the best we could,” and maybe he even believes it, but it doesn’t read that way at all. it’s not that caring for someone with a terminal illness is so hard, it’s that these people aren’t willing to put in the required effort. it’s NOT hard to NOT crash your father into a wall when you’re wheeling him through the hospital. it’s NOT hard to remember to make sure he has enough oxygen in his tank or to remember to bring kleenex or extra pants in case he loses control of his bowels. so much for dying with dignity. why you wouldn’t hire someone to make your father’s care easier when you are such rich white assholes is bananas, but if you take on the responsibility because you love him so much, then take on the fucking responsibility. step the fuck up and give back to the man who gave you life, love, and all the money that seems so important to you.

This news meant we might lose the guy who had made our lives as awesome as they were. It might mean no more time-shares in the Palm Desert. It was a scary thought.

it’s just wholly immature. to the point of coming across as sadistic.

My dad wasn’t very excited about the thought of communicating through a computer. He was trying to hang on to the things he cold do for as long as he could. He wasn’t ready to give up his voice yet, so he saw the ECO as a tool to be used down the road, and only if completely necessary.

But I was pretty excited about it. Not because I wanted my dad to lose his voice, but because I viewed the ECO as a new toy. The second I heard that my dad was getting a computer that could talk to him, my face lit up. My palms got sweaty. I smiled for the first time in weeks. I couldn’t wait to program phrases into the computer and hear it say them back in a Stephen Hawking-esque voice. I had always wanted to hear Stephen Hawking say, “Fuck my anus, you heavy-cocked whore,” and with the ECO, I finally could.

and does, programming it to say such things as “There’s a knife downstairs. Please kill me” and “Boy, I could use a blow job.”

stories like this are mitigated somewhat by how the author’s family, including his father, frequently encourage the behavior. there’s a complicity that i guess is supposed to make the reader-as-outsider interpret it as okay because wacky! but i just find it horrible and gross

I hadn’t even taken the time to learn how to pronounce the disease that was killing my father.

and for all the things in this book that are supposed to be hilariously bold and shocking and offensive, the only thing about this book i actually found offensive (besides, of course, their complete ineptitude) was its constant struggle to be funny. people who think that they are funny and aren’t are as excruciating as people who think they can sing, but can’t. the first page of the preface alone has three four misfire jokes all in a row, which pretty much sets the tone for the book. there are some things in here that are genuinely funny, but there’s so much returning to the same well: dick joke, gay joke, mormon joke, death joke, fart joke – it gets old, fast.

so i had to ask myself – why do people read memoirs? i think some of it is to read about someone who has gone through the same things the reader has gone through, or to find hope or healing or whatever, or to laugh in the face of death. problem is, this just isn’t funny. and there’s no sense that he’s learned anything or changed during the course of this. because even after his father dies – spoiler alert – there’s no cure for ALS, he’s still a selfish white asshole, as evidenced by the last story with his mother. throughout the book, there’s this undercurrent of resentment towards his mother. for wanting attention when the stress causes her to relapse, for jealousy, maybe for being sick in the first place. but it’s just more of his own need to have the attention on himself.

Although I was sort of used to it, I didn’t really like to see my mom have chemicals blasted into her frail body. It didn’t seem right. My mom was supposed to be there to love me unconditionally, to support me, to spoil me, to help me feel safe and confident enough to pursue my dreams and make the most of my life. She wasn’t supposed to be saying crazy shit and running to the bathroom every few minutes.

the thing this book does really well is to provide a frank and candid look at the debilitating nature of als, and how rapid the decline. it’s occasionally touching, and you have to wonder how much of this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but for me, it was hard to excuse the incompetence, the sense of outraged entitlement, of how inconvenient disease can be to the gilded life.

A sense of humor is all you really need to get through life

but also empathy, right?

and of course, this has already been optioned for a movie starring film darling miles teller. and as a movie, it will probably be very successful and entertaining – everyone loves dysfunctional families, everyone loves a trainwreck and reality teeveee. and i can see some of the edges of this being softened somewhat in a movie which will make my review/me look like a – well, a white asshole anyway. not the rich part. the problem here is in the details, and i just can’t see anecdotes like this:

“The chair is running out of batteries fast. We should turn around and head back,” my dad struggled to say. Fuck. We hadn’t properly charged the chair, so it had run out of battery power. We had to turn back. We were epic shitheads, and on Father’s Day. I had wanted to use the day to show how much we really did love and appreciate him. I wanted to show him that we didn’t mind caring for our pal, because he had spent so much of his life caring for us. I wanted the day to be a reflection of how great we were capable of being, instead of how shitty the situation had made us. Oh well.

coming across as lovably clueless and not what it is – just lazy shitty ungrateful behavior.

oh well, indeed.

2.5 stars cats rounded up because i still feel uncomfortable disliking it.

read my reviews on goodreads

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