When I was in high school, everyone was always revving at fever pitch. The smallest issues were always blown out of proportion–but at the same time, everything felt so real.
The author is in his early teens at the beginning of the book. For reasons that don’t make much sense to him (or us), he tries to commit suicide by dousing a bathrobe in gasoline, putting it on, and lighting it on fire. He doesn’t die, and the rest of the book tracks his treatment in various burn centers, a youth school for kids with mental illnesses, and his return to high school.
The Burn Journals is authentic, and that’s getting rarer, in my opinion. I don’t read a lot of memoirs or autobiographies. Perhaps this is unfair and untrue, but I usually see more opportunism behind books that profess to help others cope than a sincere desire to help others.
I’m not sure what Runyon wants us to get out of this book. For all the suffering he goes through, he remains a smart-aleck kid, horny as hell, desperate to be funny, and ungrateful at the most inappropriate times. I fell in love with his parents: as a new father, their heartbreak and confusion have haunted me more than the endless recountings of Brent’s skin grafts, disappointments, and pain.
He tells a story that confuses himself, so who are we to figure it out? The Burn Journals is honest. It doesn’t profess to answer questions, but takes a brutal snapshot of teenage life, albeit through an exceptional lens. Authenticity is hard to come by in modern writing–especially writing that is commercially successful. Writing that is exceptional and honest doesn’t make people rich very often.
Overall, The Burn Journals isn’t much fun, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read. A grim story that can give you a new perspective can be worth a million pages of the same old thing. Unless you have intimate experience with severe burn trauma and recovery, you’ll definitely get a new perspective here.
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PS: Book people love to talk about this stuff. Whether I’m right or wrong or confused about The Burn Journals, leave me a comment and we’ll hammer it out.