If at 46 I’ve not got all the time in the world, neither am I yet wrapping up my affairs with an eye to posterity. I’m just living my life, which, given the century, continent, and economic class that characterize it, can be expected to yield me another 28 years. That is, unless the world as I’ve known it turns upside-down in the form of, say, flu, and I’m carried off mere months from now, along with millions of other hale and unsuspecting types who were just going about their business when fate intervened with swift, inexplicable vengeance. Just like in 1918.
I admit to a reluctant fascination with that pandemic, precisely because the demographics of who died so defy assumptions: the infants and elderly survived, the strappingly healthy succumbed. In my uneasy imaginings, the survivors’ grief would have been the easy part. Far more debilitating would have been unlearning what all prior experience had led them to expect: you’re born, you grow up, and you grow old (unless you don’t). In truth, we are unmoored whenever a young, healthy person suddenly (well, how else?) dies. Not ill. Not infirm. “I just saw him,” we protest, meaning, “What could have happened since then?”
Well, flu. Or Fallujah. Or, as on February 20, 2003, at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, fire.
The scope of devastation and death meant that no one in Rhode Island entirely escaped feeling the loss and disbelief. Almost by osmosis we all learned more than we’d have wanted about burn scars, both physical and psychological, and we felt for families negotiating unavoidable emotional, legal, and financial minefields. In ways obvious and subtle, that fire still smolders.
Into this charged atmosphere comes The Burn Journals, a memoir by 28-year-old Virginia native Brent Runyon, a victim at 14 of a very different fire. Any local reader will recognize the details: searing pain, agonizing treatments, psychological trauma, family anguish, and an uphill prognosis. Except that Runyon’s injuries were no accident, but the result of a nearly successful suicide attempt.
Written in a disarming, Salingeresque voice, the book is a cautionary tale pitched by publisher Vintage at depressed teens and the families oblivious to their despair. And in any other market it might read as such. But here the plea deal involving Great White tour manager Dan Biechele has reopened old wounds shortly before the fire’s third anniversary, and lawsuits drag on, survivors struggle with lasting injuries, and families and friends still grieve loved ones gone without goodbye. In such context it’s impossible not to at once conflate and contrast the two fires and their outcomes. In one, a troubled young man literally self-immolated with rage and confusion, and then survived to tell the tale; in the other a roomful of friends and fans went out for a night of fun that ended in horror before it began, and left the known world in ashes. Runyon’s self-inflicted burns first destroy then redeem him — he rises from his own ashes. It might be easier to applaud his triumph if we could forget the 100 people who never made his choice and will never have his chance. But we can’t.