Shortly after I moved to New York to work in publishing, a friend of mine beelined across the room at a party, grabbed me by the arm and shrieked, “I’m reading the most awesome book! There’s this kid in it, and he’s living with a crazy psychiatrist and his family, and they try to predict the future by looking at the shape of their poop !”
Such was my (admittedly incomplete) introduction to the writing of Augusten Burroughs.
The book in question, of course, was Running With Scissors: Burroughs’ memoir about his childhood in the wake of his mother’s nervous breakdown, and a bestseller many times over. It deserves to be; it’s a good book, and Burroughs is a good writer.
He’s also notable in his genre – he has published four memoirs, and his fifth, A Wolf at the Table , comes out today – for having remained relatively untainted by the now-commonplace practice of revealing a memoirist’s work to be a bunch of hooey. (Witness the fall of James Frey , J.T. Leroy , Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca .) Although the family portrayed in Running With Scissors outed themselves several years ago in a lawsuit contending that the author had slandered them, Burroughs and his book escaped pretty much unscathed. It’s amazing, considering the current, bloodthirsty penchant for dissecting the work of well-known writers in the hope that they’ll be discovered as frauds and subsequently forced to endure public humiliation. (Ooh, and on television! And at the hands of an irate Oprah Winfrey!)
One might even go so far as to suggest that the very fact that Burroughs is still standing must mean that all his wild stories are true… or at least, true enough that the poop-divining subjects of Running With Scissors were placated with naught but a tiny change to the Acknowledgments page in future printings.
So basically, it’s good of him to write another book.
A Wolf at the Table is a sort of prequel to Running With Scissors , picking up in the days when Burroughs’ parents were still together and his mother’s sanity was still intact. It’s also, in contrast to the eyebrow-raising, “get a load of this!” nature of his other works, extremely dark. (Check out the sample chapter via the author’s website here , and see if it doesn’t make your hair stand on end.)
It represents an interesting departure from the earlier work that, even when it tackled death and insanity, always had a sort of hysterical sheen that made it undeniably funny. Burroughs as a storyteller is immensely gifted, exuberant, hilarious; but to me, the thing which sets him apart is his ability to make the bizarre seem matter-of-fact. It could even be what makes his work so believable. (Even the aforementioned poop thing was part of a larger, in-story context that made it… well, if not justifiable, at least understandable.) But will this gritty, dark picture of a tormented childhood be as easy to swallow? We’ve seen him explain his youthful run-ins with the Somewhat Peculiar and the Happily Psychotic; it’s time to see what he does with the Inexplicably Malevolent.
And whether, at the last page, we still believe that it’s all true.