The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 8, 2010

Book review: Burroughs’ essays rough yet rewarding

‘You Better Not Cry’

By Augusten Burroughs

Halfway through “You Better Not Cry,” Augusten Burroughs’ latest collection of essays, I still wasn’t sure what to think of it. Or even if I’d finish it.

I’d been hoping for something along the lines of David Sedaris’ “Holidays on Ice,” which was consistently funny and twisted, often at the expense of others, but unfailingly affectionate.

At first, I didn’t find that in “You Better Not Cry.”

The book struck me as uneven, hilarious and disturbing, but cold — much like Burroughs’ own life, I guess. Anyone who has read his books is familiar with his dysfunctional background: an alcoholic father, a mentally ill mother, years of unhealthy relationships and drinking binges.

I didn’t crack a smile until the second piece, “Claus and Effect,” an ode to a child’s greed at Christmas. Even if the essay’s characterization is an exaggeration, Burroughs still must have been a monster. He presents his parents with a list of “acceptable” gifts, among them a gold-plated watch, a bag of coins, gold nuggets and a leather wallet.

“And as far as I was concerned, my parents would give me whatever I wanted,” he writes. “It was my payment for enduring the other 364 days of the year with them. Between my nasty drunk father and my suicidal, mental-patient mother, I felt I was owed certain reimbursements. They had aged me; I would drain them dry.”

Holy cow. Young Augusten makes today’s kids — with their desire for Wii’s, cell phones, and iPods — look like Marxists. Still, I had to laugh at his over-the-top requests. Seriously, what kind of a child asks for gold nuggets?

Less amusing was the essay about Burroughs’ one-night stand with a geriatric Frenchman in Santa regalia. The sleaze factor was just too much for me. It also seemed somewhat unbelievable, right down to its semi-redemptive ending.

But as “You Better Not Cry” progressed, my appreciation for it grew. The writing improved, reminding me of why I like Burroughs so much. The intent no longer seemed to horrify or amuse; rather, it was to touch a deeper emotion in the reader.

In “Why Do You Reward Me Thus?” Burroughs recounts an incident from his boozing days. One minute he’s drinking in a bar; the next he’s waking up in the street, snuggled up against two homeless guys for warmth.

While he has preconceived notions about “bums,” he finds camaraderie among them. One is an elegant woman who professes to be a singer. He asks her for a song, and when she opens her mouth, a Puccini aria emerges.

“As she sang, the windows of the brownstone across the street shimmered in reply. Her voice had weakened the molecular bond of glass. It filled the space between the flakes of falling snow and packed the air with beauty. It was, at once, Christmas in Manhattan.”

This piece marked a turning point in the collection’s overall tone. Burroughs begins to let some vulnerability peek through, enough so that the reader can detect the yearning and loneliness he feels around the holidays.

I realized that “You Better Not Cry” depicts his journey toward a “normal” Christmas, whatever that might be. He has some drunken and depressing ones — my heart broke a little for him when I read “The Best and Only Everything,” about his first Christmas with an HIV-infected lover — but he continues to inch his way toward a functional life.

In the final essay, “Silent Night,” Burrough’s life is calm, for him. He has been sober for a decade and has a long-time partner, with whom he has two dogs, a station wagon, and a house. After years of ignoring the holiday, he tries to have the perfect Christmas.

It’s within reach, but then catastrophe strikes in the form of a household flood. His reaction to the situation is very telling, and the reader realizes that, although Burroughs’ life has been a series of mistakes and disasters, he has learned something along the way.

Perhaps he says it best himself. Looking at the Christmas tree standing in their wrecked home, Burroughs holds his partner’s hand and whispers, “I’m very lucky.”

I felt lucky to have gone on the journey with him in “You Better Not Cry.” I’m glad I stuck with it, and with him.

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