The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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?”

At that moment, Augusten’s childhood ends. He now sees his father as he really is, and he’s frightened — not just of his father, but of himself. “Before, I was afraid that I might grow up to be like him. Now, I knew that I already was. Because what he had done to Ernie I knew I could do to him. My father did not deserve to breathe.”

His father’s behavior grows increasingly disturbing. He assaults his wife. He stays up late sharpening knives. He ignores Augusten’s pleas to take a cancer-stricken family dog to the vet, instead choosing to have philosophical arguments with the boy about the word “ought.” He stands at the foot of his sleeping son’s bed, staring at him, held at bay only by a growling, protective dog.

Years after escaping his father’s physical grasp, the emotional hold was still hard for Burroughs to break. At a point in his life when he was so broke he couldn’t afford food, he called his father in desperation; his father showed up with half a loaf of day-old Wonder bread, a package of bologna containing five pieces, and a severely dented can of Hi-C fruit punch.

Obligatory, weekly phone calls were an awkward dance of son trying to best his father, to prove that he was more successful.

And as his father lay dying, Burroughs was by his side. His brother heard these final words: “You’ve been a good boy, a good son.” Burroughs heard nothing; his father looked at him, then closed his mouth, shut his eyes and was silent.

Throughout the book, Burroughs offers glimpses of what might have shaped his father’s dark behavior — suffering a painful physical ailment, the frustrations of dealing with an unstable spouse, an idyllic early childhood spent with a loving grandfather and aunts, followed by years of abuse upon returning to his parents.

But he in no way tries to excuse him. His father was a monster, a twisted man seemingly incapable of giving love. The horrors he inflicted on his family obviously still haunt Burroughs. As I finished the book, I had the sense that it has taken him years to process his history. It’s as if he had to deal with other issues first — his mother, his childhood, his own battles with the bottle — before he had the strength to take on the “Wolf at the Table.” Today, he seems neither to have forgotten nor forgiven. He has simply moved on.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant of the Joplin Public Library.