Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Dan Marshall doesn’t care whether or not you like him. From the half-censored profanity on the middle of his memoir’s front cover, this self-proclaimed ‘spoiled white asshole’ is clear about one thing – having two parents diagnosed with a terminal illness doesn’t necessarily make you the sweetest guy. Home is Burning is a frank, often caustic account of his own mid-twenties. At the age of 25, Marshall is forced to leave his ‘perfect life’ in Los Angeles, complete with corporate job and an attractive girlfriend, and move back to Salt Lake City, Utah to live at home and help his siblings look after his dying parents. His mother Debi had been living with non-Hodgkins lymphoma for 14 years when Marshall’s father Bob was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. As their parents’ conditions rapidly weaken, the five siblings in this Sedaris-like clan (or ‘Team Terminal’, as Marshall puts it) are expected to pull together and support each other.

This memoir doesn’t read like your typical, sentimental ‘sick-lit’ – Marshall’s approach is to deal with adversity through humour, a technique evident in every page. The move home is a huge shift for him in responsibility, and comes with more than a hearty dose of self-pity. Yet his tendency to add in punchlines and profanities works to soften the various blows dealt with throughout these two years, both for Marshall and for the reader. ‘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.’

The news that the movie rights have already been picked up, to be directed by Jonathan Levine and to star Miles Teller, is proof that the balance of drama and comedy in Marshall’s story should appeal to readers. For those who can look past the explicit language, Home is Burning is, ultimately, a moving account of a complicated (endearingly dysfunctional) family dealing with personal tragedy. If sarcasm and dirty jokes make you chuckle, it’s a refreshingly candid, frequently entertaining read.

Stella Charls