Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cannonball Read #10: A Wolf at the Table, by Augusten Burroughs

I love Augusten Burroughs.

The first of his books that I read was - like everyone else's first - Running With Scissors, and while it's an insane, unique story, what makes it so good is not the story but the manner in which it's presented. Burroughs' writing is crisp and clear and perfectly conveys not only the facts of the case but the feeling of it all...the claustrophobic Stockholm Syndrome of his time in the care of his mother's deranged "psychiatrist," the unnerving paranoia of his family life that made the psychiatrist's home seem like an upgrade, the feeling of the vibrant personalities around him that taught him and got him through it. Long ago, I read A Child Called It, which is an alarming account of one of the worst cases of child abuse on record, and while it was horrifying in a "my God, that HAPPENED" way, it lacked some of the immediacy of Scissors, because the latter showed how a wide variety of types of people could devolve into madness, and it showed how organic it was, how natural, how easy.

Within a month of reading Scissors, I read Sellevision, Dry, and Magical Thinking, discovered that Burroughs occasionally popped up on NPR, and then when Possible Side Effects came out, I bought it the day it hit shelves and had it read by the time I went to bed. I was totally thrilled to hear about Wolf at the Table, expecting more Augusten-y goodness, and in a creepy, voyeuristic way, probably anticipating more stories about the guy's fucked up formative years. I mean come his Dad could possibly be the one stable figure in the joint and still merit a book?

Maybe my anticipation stole my own juice, but I am left sadly uninspired by this outing. The writing is still good, of course - I find that it is almost always inspiration that leaves writers, and not talent - but the story just isn't as engaging as I expected. It's fucked up, yeah...his Dad, like seemingly everyone else in his young life, is seriously deranged and a menace to just about everyone. But something about the tone of it all seemed like Burroughs was grasping for evidence that his Dad was super extra horribly bad, and not that the actual horror of an unhinged parent was coming through the writing organically. In his other books, Burroughs mentions that he tends toward the melodramatic, but this is the first book in which I felt he really came off that way. And the thing that is so weird is that the shit his Dad pulled throughout his childhood is horrible and is worthy of note and is a study in the kind of insidious child abuse that doesn't tend to get noticed until it's too late, so it's not like the story isn't worth telling or that he's making it all up. It just comes off strangely, and there's even a section of the book that works as an accidental metaphor for the whole exercise...
To my own ear I sounded like a toddler proudly proclaiming, Today I made a pee. And I made poo. And then I walked outside. And then I found a rock. And then the rock was round and so I kept it. And then I found another rock. Only this one was flat and so I kept it, too. And then tomorrow I am going to paint a horse with real paint and paper and everything! And it sickened me, but I could not stop and had to come back for more.

Maybe that's just where Burroughs is at this point - mired in his past for the moment, unable to do anything but regurgitate his daily goings on and how he got there. The thing is that the writing is still so good. It's not that he has lost his touch, just that he's in a holding pattern.

There may also be an element of societal counterbalance at work. With the Internet, any number of pop psychological TV shows and the vogue for memoirists, it seems like we as a culture are stuck in this constant battle of oneupmanship. My childhood was more fucked up than yours was. My parents were shittier than yours were. I had less food. I had less money. I had a harder time. Feel sorrier for me. The reverse of all this is a certain attitude of disdain for those who cannot bear up through all this and become better, stronger, faster as adults. To a certain extent, I feel like we're at a point where if your shitty parent stopped short of testing out the popular methods of the Marquis de Sade and Vlad the Impaler on you, people respond with more with an attitude of "so what's the big deal? Sack up, ho" than one of sympathy. I wonder if some of this thinking has colored my reaction to this book. Like I said, it's beautifully written, very evocative, yet I feel like it's missing a certain extremism that would make the story stand out amongst the sea of woeful tales. I don't know. I think a lot of that very culture that engenders this attitude is dumb as hell, so I respond negatively to that, too, but maybe it's kind of leached into my worldview in spite of me.

This is worth reading, but only after you've treated yourself to the much better earlier works of Augusten Burroughs. He is a wonderful writing, and his books are truly affecting, for better and worse.

242 pages

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. This was the first time I felt as though he was trying really hard to prove just how terrible his family was.