Book review: ‘A Wolf At the Table’
Special to the Daily
What on earth would Augusten Burroughs be without such a disturbing childhood?
Well, he probably wouldn’t have written this book, for one thing, as we find out in his troubling new memoir “A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father.” In one cathartic, chilling moment, we learn that little Augusten, all of 12 years old, contemplates throwing himself from a cliff to spite his cold-blooded dad.
If you couldn’t guess, the mood never lightens in this somber story of a sadistic father well-versed in the art of the silent treatment from a writer who has made a cottage industry of his supremely strange upbringing.
Burroughs’ family, and subsequent surrogate family, was forever immortalized in the mega-selling memoir “Running With Scissors,” which despite its explosive, macabre family dynamics managed moments of levity and humor to counteract its toxic subject matter.
“A Wolf at the Table” is virtually devoid of any bits and pieces of fun, making this easily the memoirist’s sternest offering in a canon that includes family distress (“Scissors”), alcoholism (“Dry”) and the banalities of everyday life (“Possible Side Effects”), all garnering reviews filled with antonyms. “Funny” and “twisted” often appear between periods of Burroughs’ work.
Given his previous offerings, Burroughs’ “A Wolf at the Table” is a decidedly dark turn, further solidifying that the adults in Burroughs’ life effectively flew off the rails of the crazy train, leaving a sensitive boy to fend for himself. Burroughs’ father is every bit the wolf in the title.
Burroughs’ father is more specter than parent, fading in and out of his son’s childhood. When he’s around, he’s abusive in every aspect, all the while sucking down cigarettes and booze, reaffirming that his son is more waste of space than flesh and blood.
As young Augusten tries furtively to win his father’s affection, or at least recognition, he’s met with oddball sadism.
There’s the time his father refuses to use any lights in hopes of saving electricity.
Then there’s the time Augusten’s brother levels a gun at drunken Dad, with Augusten urging his brother to pull the trigger. Then there’s the time Augusten’s father slaps him, hard, as he prays for divine removal of dear old Dad.
Invariably, with all of Burroughs’ work, there will be three camps, those who love it and those who hate it. It’s quite easy to be swayed in either direction. Burroughs certainly has a gift for prose and setting, but rare is it when people can genuinely say they enjoy reading about the degradation committed by Dad. And, of course, the third camp is comprised of those who will summarize Burroughs with three short, curt words: “Get over yourself.”
Stephen Bedford is the general manager of The Bookworm of Edwards.
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