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Recent Reading: A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs - Mo's Journal
June 3rd, 2008
08:39 am

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Recent Reading: A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs's new book is subtitled "A Memoir of My Father." It's his third memoir, after Running With Scissors which told the story of his adolescent years spent with his crazy mother's crazy psychiatrist's dysfunctional family, and Dry about struggling with alcoholism. I've read the former and not the latter. I found Running With Scissors very funny, in a kind of exuberantly wacky way. I also found it not that credible. Burroughs tells the story with such hyperbolic flourishes that as a reader I wondered what was true, what was embellishment, and what was pure fiction. Still, I really enjoyed the book and laughed out loud through a lot of it.

The new one doesn't have any laughs. It primarily covers the period before Running With Scissors and deals with Burroughs's relationship with his father, John Robison, a professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Burroughs changed his name from Christopher Robison, when he was a young adult). Burroughs's mother's poor mental health was viewed as comic in Running With Scissors but this book has a much darker tone and explores the effects of having two seriously mentally ill parents on a growing child. Burroughs portrays his father as alcoholic, distant, prone to fits of temper. His mother takes the young Augusten and leaves at various points of his childhood for periods lasting from days to months, saying that his father is not safe to be around (although she always leaves his older brother with the father, when she does, even when he is also a relatively small child). Burroughs talks about desperately trying to earn his father's attention and love and always failing, about his father's cruelty towards his pets, about trying to understand why his mother finds his father not safe to be around.

The book has a very dark tone, but also feels more realistic than the previous memoir. Much of Running With Scissors seemed like fantasy to me, like there was a core of truth to it but it got embellished for humorous effect. There is fantasy in the new book but it's labeled as such, e.g. he'll tell a story that gets more and more appalling, and then he'll tell you it didn't really happen, that was just his fantasy of how things might have unfolded. I found that very affecting and effective. I also found that with this book he really seems to be trying to understand his father, which I never felt about any of the people in the first book, which was truly all about him. This one feels more mature, more reflective, more thoughtful. OTOH it's not funny. It's a very quick read and I recommend it.

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From:tobias_cur
Date:June 3rd, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!

Janet Maslin of N. Y. T. HATED this book, but just like Mikey, I think she hates everything! I’ve had this book in my hand about three times now and keep putting it down for fear that she is right. I’m glad to see it is better than her review suggested.

I’ve read “Running with Scissors,” “Possible Side Effects,” and “Magical Thinking,” by Burroughs and enjoyed all three, with as you say, a grain of salt as to the accuracy of the facts. I haven’t read “Dry” either, but I probably will at some point. “Wolf at the Table,” Burroughs admitted in an interview was a very different book from all his work that came before, but he hoped ultimately more honest and powerful.

Anyway, thank you for taking the time to review this book. You have allayed my fears.
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From:mofic
Date:June 4th, 2008 11:00 am (UTC)
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I read that review in the Times. I felt like she and I had read entirely different books!
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From:opera142
Date:June 5th, 2008 01:03 am (UTC)
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I liked Dry. It took me a while to get to it. I had enjoyed Running With Scissors so much, I was afraid Dry would be a weak rehash. It's its own book, and while there are some wacky moments, it's not RWS wacky. It sold me on Burroughs' writing ability-- that it was good in its own way, and that he recognized that.
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From:mofic
Date:June 5th, 2008 11:53 am (UTC)
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I do think he writes well, but I feel like the whole how-I-got-sober genre is such a played out one. Did you feel like he had anything new to say?
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