CHILD INTERRUPTED

  • Article by: CLAUDE PECK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2008 - 11:28 AM

In his third full-length memoir, Augusten Burroughs focuses on early childhood and his father -- a sometimes passive, sometimes violent and deeply unhappy alcoholic.

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Augusten Burroughs, who lives in New York.

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Forgive and forget. Let bygones be bygones. Ignoring such proverbial advice (and trusting his considerable storytelling gift) has given Augusten Burroughs a career as a bestselling writer.

Still only in his 40s, he has written his third full-length memoir, a depressing book called "A Wolf at the Table" that focuses on his early childhood and his father.

In his hit "Running With Scissors" (made into a movie), Burroughs memorably recounted his teen years with his "crazy mother," who "gave me away to her lunatic psychiatrist." Burroughs "then lived a life of squalor, pedophiles, no school and free pills," as he recalled it in "Dry," the followup book about his early-adult struggle with alcoholism.

"Wolf" includes Burroughs' earliest recollections, beginning with his being perched in his highchair, regarding the world through a tiny hole in a saltine cracker.

Burroughs' father played a small role in "Running With Scissors," which portrayed the years following the divorce of the writer's parents. In "Wolf," his dad is physically present in the house, but mostly absent as a loving father.

A passive, emotionally detached, chain-smoking alcoholic who also suffers from severe arthritis and debilitating psoriasis, Burroughs' father sometimes erupts into menacing fugue states. Dad as pet killer. Dad attempting to strangle mom during a drunken argument. Dad threatening to kill older brother. Dad as profane, deeply unhappy, violently angry.

Burroughs handles recollected scenes confusingly, often lapsing into fantasy language, secondhand accounts and dreams that cast doubt on just what happened and what was imagined upon later reflection. One wonders, for instance, how Burroughs could remember, and reproduce in quotation marks, a 300-word philosophical rant by his father that appears mid-book.

More concrete are his recollections of the more mundane, though not less psychologically harmful, details of his relationship with his father. When the family got a pool table, "I begged my father to teach me to play, but not once did he play pool with me." A baseball mitt likewise goes unused.

Young Augusten clearly ached for his father's love. There are scenes of terrible sadness, as when he secretly stuffs some of his father's old clothes to make a life-sized dummy that he hugs clandestinely, delighting in the embrace of the pseudo-dad.

When he was younger, Augusten demanded attention and affection, only to be consistently rebuffed. A bit later, his neediness turned: "Hate bloomed within me, unfurling like the supple petals of a deadly flower."

Only near the end of the harrowing book does Burroughs have this crucial insight: "Maybe, what you get from a father you can get somewhere else, from somebody else, later. Or, maybe you can just work around what's missing, build the house of your life over the hole that is there and always will be."

"Wolf" is missing the lacerating humor that was a salvation in "Running With Scissors." In the earlier book, and also in "Dry," Burroughs tangled more with his developing sense of a rebellious and tragicomic self-hood. Here, the tone is unremittingly grim.

Also dismaying are the gothic clichés, the shameless hyperbole, the grandiloquent micro-epiphanies, as in: "A couple of mints had shifted the axis of my world." "And it began." "This was God."

The book also suffers from a jerky structure in which the final chapters and epilogue collapse time to survey adult years familiar to readers of the other books, only this time with Burroughs' father somewhat awkwardly folded in.

Given the abundance of bad dads, many readers will flock to "Wolf at the Table" to compare and commiserate. (They are likely to "lose.") Others may wonder whether Burroughs' now-dead father could really have been as awful as his depiction. Somehow the characterization is so awful and evil and one-sided that I found myself, perhaps out of perverse, weary desperation, looking for excuses to feel an ounce of sympathy for the man. Otherwise, I'm watching him take a relentless, even vengeful, literary pounding, which paints a sad picture of both father and son.

Claude Peck • 612-673-7977

  • A WOLF AT THE TABLE: A MEMOIR OF MY FATHER

    By: Augusten Burroughs.

    Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 256 pages, $24.95.

    Review: A harrowing and depressing memoir from the author of "Running With Scissors" and "Dry."

    Event: 7 p.m. May 16, University of Minnesota Bookstore, Coffman Memorial Union, 300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls.

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