Mo (mofic) wrote,

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.
Tags: reading
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