Book Review: "Burn It All Down" by Nicolas DiDomizio
Posted Jan 25, 2022
Later on in this review there will be spoilers. I’ll put a note before they start.
“Burn It All Down” was pretty good. The characters were realistic, complicated people, the story kept me reading for 200 pages without a break (which is, like, almost the entire book), and the DiDomizio did a great job at manipulating my emotions like a ventriloquist. I absolutely recommend reading this if you like books about revenge, gay relationships, and committing a felony.
That said, this was definitely the author’s first book. It sometimes felt that he was worried the message he was trying to get across was going to be missed so he had to state it directly, but the characters and plot were both written well enough he didn’t need to. At the same time this definitely felt like a book aimed at the just-over-18 crowd, and the themes present would have gone right over my head at 18 years old.
I’d give this an 8/10. Definitely would read again.
Everything beyond this point contains spoilers.
I cannot believe I get to live in an era where I get to read about a dumb gay boy committing arson. To give a quick plot summary before diving in: the book is told from the first-person perspective of a young gay man named Joey who, after he and his mom find out at the same time that their boyfriends have been cheating on them, talks his mom into getting a little revenge by vandalizing their stuff. He trashes his ex-boyfriend’s truck, and while trashing his mom’s ex-boyfriend’s house, they accidentally commit arson while burning clothes in the tub. They flee New Jersey for a few days and Joey meets a new boy, his mom rekindles a relationship she messed up, and eventually the cops piece it together so they turn themselves in.
DiDomizio really sent me on an emotional journey, y’all. He has this really great way of dragging the details of a scene for several paragraphs, just really giving you a good feel for what’s going on, and then totally changing the pace to create a feeling of pure chaos so well it feels like watching something unfold in real time in front of you. The bathtub scene really exemplifies this; the build up of smashing the chandelier, breaking some plates and spraypainting a kitchen counter, finding another woman’s bra (who makes it THREE women this assbag has been running around on!!) and tossing them into the tub with some other shirts, striking the match, lighting the sleeve, watching it go up in flames, and then immediately surging into panic when the tub starts melting. I’ve started more than one kitchen fire before and let me just say, that feeling when you smell smoke? When your heart drops into your ass as the flames come up around something? Scrambling for water or a fire extinguisher or SOMETHING? He managed to capture that sheer panic energy in half a page. I took a break for a few minutes at the end of that chapter cause damn.
But that’s not the only way the author really got his hands on my feelings and perceptions during this book. He really made a good unreliable narrator out of Joey, because it didn’t really hit me until about three quarters of the way through the book how easy it was to buy his justifications and rationalizations for what they were doing. You read three pages of him building himself up about the details of being cheated on, the insane texts his ex sent him blaming him for being cheated on, and then he says he wants to bust that dude’s truck up and you think, “yeah, that sounds reasonable.” There’s a part towards the end of the book where they meet the third woman that dude whose house got burned down was sleeping with and she says something along the lines of “if you hadn’t done it, I probably would have” and they ask her would you though? Like if we put a match in your hands would you REALLY do it? And she says no, and you know what? Same.
That’s the thing about this character that really stuck out to me: he’s REALLY good at talking himself into something. So good that sometimes he was talking me into thinking that what he was about to do was a good idea at the time. Just by reframing a couple of details, the entire situation feels different. He isn’t a crazy ex beating in the windshield of some guy he’s only known a few months, he’s a deeply wounded individual whose entire future has been upended by some selfish prick! He and his mom don’t have an unhealthy codependent relationship, she’s just a cool mom who lets him in on what’s going on! Being told everything from first-person perspective, we literally see the world filtered through his lens and have to constantly reassess what’s going on. Even when he finally acknowledges that what they did was wrong and goes to turn himself in, he still can’t escape his own blinders and goes in without a lawyer because he’s no longer the suffering victim, he’s the tragic hero.
He’s not the only one who can’t see the world outside of his own filter though. The boy he meets on the lam, Will, is from a wealthy family and sees the world with a different set of filters that are obvious to Joey (and by proxy, us). He asks Joey what college he’s going to and when Joey says he might not go to college, it catches Will off-guard because, in his mind, that’s just what happens. When Joey breaks something expensive in the house, Will brushes it off as just being another possession, something that can be replaced, something that, “no one really liked anyway.” When Will says he’s never had sex with someone he wasn’t in a serious relationship with before, the difference in the way they view the world is made clear to both of them at the same time: Joey, who measures periods of his life by the shitty men who were in it at the time, doesn’t even know how to process relationships the same way as Will, whose entire life has been in a stable home.
I suppose it’s less a book about arson and more a book about how we can talk ourselves into it.
Also, just an author’s note here: this is my first entry on this blog. A year from now I’ll probably read this and cringe hard enough to astral project into last week. I’m giving everybody permission to read this and say “well that was dumb as shit” and never think about it again bc I most certainly will