Holding Up The Sky
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
Review of Burn This City To the Ground by N. Daniel
The title phrase Burn This City To the Ground could describe the social unrest of many cities during the summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Still in the early stages of the global pandemic, the lack of social distancing and masking was of nearly equal concern as the violence and destruction taking place on city streets. The setting for this novel is downtown Minneapolis where the main character, Daniel, volunteers in the same homeless shelter where George Floyd worked security. Despite the roiling vision of riots and civil disobedience suggested by the title, the narrative is a quieter statement about consequential work and human connections. Author N. Daniel has written a book based on a true story that conjures a universal yearning for leading a meaningful, purposeful life.
When his story begins, Daniel is employed sorting clothes in a thrift store which he considers “meaningless busywork meant to occupy a disturbed mind.” He chooses instead to pursue work as a caregiver to further develop his capacity for compassion and gentleness for others and to grow as a person. He is assigned to different group homes where he quickly learns to care for disabled clients. On his first day, he gets a crash course in spoon-feeding adults, showering strangers, and providing the most basic of services to those who cannot help themselves.
His most challenging client is Sam, a young woman whose world was already complicated and filled with troubles before her life-altering injury left her a quadriplegic. Her caustic personality and vulgar wit serve as a protective barrier against feeling the vast depth of her loss which stretches far beyond her useless limbs. Occasionally there are glimpses of Sam’s aspirations that offer hope for a better future: to finish school, to visit with her 6-year-old son again, to party with friends in downtown Minneapolis. But more pervasive is her simple desire to die.
“Who’s afraid of a virus? I hope I get it,” Sam says in reference to COVID which she views as an opportunity to end her suffering.
Early in the novel, Daniel is living with his mother as he regains stability after being institutionalized. But living with a parent means “having little to no real independence.” Unlike Sam, he has the ability to choose a different path for himself. Inexplicably he decides to link his fate with Sam’s. A woman who does everything in her power to alienate those around her creates instead a sort of tractor-beam magnetism for Daniel who wants to assist Sam to become more independent, with the idea this may give her a greater desire to continue living.
The author vividly yet respectfully describes the mundane tasks required of a caregiver, a profession that is considered a calling to many who choose this occupation. I am grateful that such people exist. When I consider the tedium of caring for another human who will never be able to care for him or herself, I am awash in a sense of futility and despair. This commitment is so unlike caring for a child who grows and learns and develops new skills over time, eventually achieving total independence. Sam would always be without the use of her limbs, barring some miraculous future medical intervention that has yet to be perfected. Caregivers such as Daniel possess a sense of grace and selflessness as they provide for their clients, attributes not held in great quantities by the general population.
Yet Daniel does struggle at times and questions his choice to help others which is a contradiction to his father’s teachings of prioritizing one’s self, not living for another.
“My Dad really wanted to drive that point home with me,” points taken from Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged. The title of Rand’s book references a Greek God who is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, or in some interpretations, "holding up the sky." Ironically, this is closer to Daniel’s truth as he not only navigates the continued nurturing of his own mental health but copes with his cancer diagnosis and treatment, all the while being the sole caregiver for Sam.
In an effort to not “lose himself” and to maintain his own serenity, Daniel seeks a spiritual practice but is uncertain if Buddhist teachings and meditation are right for him, as he associates this with the decline of his mental health and being institutionalized. When he confides in Sam that with her influence he had come to believe in God again she laughs this off.
“God? God?? Don’t make me laugh. You wouldn’t know God if he came to the beach and kicked over your fucking sandcastle.”
Sam with her suicidal ideation and dark humor is like a stroke of lightning in this story. Her character is crass and subversive and never sugar coats what she really means. Her unfiltered assessment of Daniel with his just adequate caregiving skills, lacking in personal hygiene, and tidiness, infuses the story with a realness many people cower from. Given her immobility, she has chosen to exercise her wit and sharp tongue, never missing an opportunity to criticize, even going so far as to demoralize Daniel.
The story is strongest when we encounter Sam live, breathe, and speak even at the expense of the main character. She’s like a train wreck the reader cannot look away from with her banter thrown handily at Daniel. She is so alive in these pages I want to cheer for her, and hope for her own infusion of enthusiasm for life. But Daniel is our conduit to Sam, and it is his quest for a purposeful life that brought them together in the first place. Does he eventually find personal fulfillment? Does Sam gain greater independence despite her physical limitations? This is well worth the read to find out, to accompany them on their intertwined journeys, with a front-row view as the city smolders.
Find out more about the author here: https://www.ndaniel.us/
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The author and his wife:
Author N. Daniel received an Honorable Mention for both of his titles Burn This City To the Ground and Corners Untouched By Madness at the 2021 Paris Book Festival: