The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

October 10, 2008

Book review: Burroughs’ memoir a riveting, painful tale

Lately I’ve been on a memoir kick, thanks to Augusten Burroughs’ newest book, “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father.”

Burroughs is one of my must-read authors. All of his books have a brutal honesty and a wicked sense of humor in common. He’s able to look back on a life falling apart and laugh. Crazy mother abandons you to her equally whacked-out psychiatrist? Hey, that’s life. Fresh out of alcohol rehab but find yourself in a relationship with a drug addict? No problem.

But, while a riveting read, “A Wolf at the Table” is not remotely funny. Instead, with painful intimacy, it details a childhood spent at the mercy of a man capable of great cruelty and coldness.

From the beginning, a normal father-son relationship is virtually nonexistent. Young Augusten idolizes his father, but any attempts to hug him are usually rebuffed. Hungry for affection, he devises a solution. In one of the book’s most heartbreaking scenes, he swipes some of his father’s clothing and stuffs it with towels until he has made a “father body.” Then, “Tenderly, being mindful not to dislodge the torso from the legs and spoil the illusion, I crawled into bed beside the body, turned on my side, and curled against it. A trace, a mere whiff of my father’s cologne clung to the shirt’s fibers when I pressed my face against its chest. It was an acceptable substitute.”

Mother and son repeatedly flee the troubled household. When they return after one such separation, Augusten discovers that his beloved pet, a guinea pig named Ernie, has not been cared for in his absence. In fact, the animal seems to have suffered an agonizing death. When he runs from his room in grief and shock, his father’s response is chilling: He smiles and asks, “Did you say hello to Ernie?”

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