Monday, June 2, 2008

New Book Review From The Entertainment Critic: A Wolf At The Table by Augusten Burroughs

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father


By Augusten Burroughs
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Pub. Date: April 2008
ISBN-13: 9780312342029
Sales Rank: 193
Four Star Rating ****

Born Christopher Robison (he changed his name when he turned 18), Burroughs is the son of an alcoholic father who abandoned his family and a manic-depressive mother who fancied herself a poet in the style of Anne Sexton. At age 12, he was farmed out to his mother's psychiatrist, a deeply disturbed -- and disturbing -- man whose medical license was ultimately revoked for gross misconduct. In Running with Scissors, Burroughs recounts his life with the pseudonymous Finch family as an experience tantamount to being raised by wolves. The characters he describes are unforgettable: children of assorted ages running wild through a filthy, dilapidated Victorian house, totally unfettered by rules or inhibitions; a variety of deranged patients who take up residence with the Finches seemingly at will; and a 33-year-old pedophile who lives in the backyard shed and initiates an intense, openly homosexual relationship with the 13-year-old Burroughs right under the doctor's nose.

That he is able to wring humor and insight out of this shocking scenario is testimony to Burroughs's writing skill. Upon its publication in 2002, Scissors was hailed as "mordantly funny" (Los Angeles Times), "hilarious" (San Francisco Chronicle), and "sociologically suggestive and psychologically astute" (The New York Times). The book became a #1 bestseller and was turned into a 2006 movie starring Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, and Joseph Fienes.

[Although the doctor who "raised" Burroughs was never named in the memoir, six members of the real-life family sued the author and his publisher for defamation, claiming that whole portions of the book were fabricated. Burroughs insisted that the book was entirely accurate but agreed in the 2007 settlement to change the wording of the author's note and acknowledgement in future editions of the book. He was never required to change a single word of the memoir itself.]

Since Running with Scissors, Burroughs has mined snippets of his life for more bestsellers, including further installments of his memoir (Dry, A Wolf at the Table) and several well-received collections of razor-sharp essays. His writing continues to appear in newspapers and magazines around the world, and he is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

““Kill him,” I whispered. His eyes met mine and held the glaze. His eyes met mine and held the glaze. “Kill him,” I said once more.

Nobody breathed.

Nobody moved.

The astronauts closed their eyes.

The moment was balanced on the head of a pin.

Then my brother’s head rocked back a little in astonishment and he blinked. He quickly took the gun and I could see, yes, I’d done the right thing.

I hadn’t known I needed my father dead until that moment. There was only a single action: get the gun. But now I knew my father had to die.

My brother had the heel of the rifle packed tight against his right shoulder, his head cocked sideways as he looked down the barrel of the gun, which was now pointed at our father…

I screamed with excitement rather than fear. “Kill him, kill him, kill him.” My throat vibrated as I screamed the words, the loudest sounds I have ever made. I felt heat rise in my face as my lungs emptied and my vision began to darken.”

Controversial author, Augusten Burroughs, has written a disturbing new book, A Wolf At The Table, A Memoir of My Father. This is the type of probing self-examination that serious writers do, and Augusten Burroughs is a serious writer. This open, jarring examination of his childhood and his relationship with his alcoholic father who engaged in psychological abuse, cruelty and abandonment is a searing expose of what it is like from the point of view of a precocious child to be raised by a distant, drunken father.

Augusten’s earliest recollections demonstrate what an obtuse and uncaring man his father really was. When the former philosophy professor at Amherst College would arrive home for the evening, he seemed to be more concerned about his drink than his son. Handing him art projects or simply trying to make conversation of any type was met with cold disregard, disgust and chilling brutality. As a boy Augusten longed to hug his father so badly that he would take his father’s clothes, stuff them with towels and snuggle with this “acceptable substitute.”

Trying to balance life with his concerned but weak mother, an unpredictable, rebel older brother, and violent father, young Augusten constantly seems to be walking on egg shells trying to win his father’s affection. Two episodes in this book stand out. The episode described above, where the old brother is having a confrontation with the father, and young Augusten fetches a gun, which the brother points at the father and informs him that he keeps it loaded all of the time. Augusten is screaming through the entire confrontation at the older brother to kill him. The second episode is after Augusten is older and the father drunk calls him and threatens to come over and kill him. After Augusten call the police, the father, suddenly sober, tells the police officers, that he made no such call and this must be a false report on his son’s part. Equally disturbing is that fact that young Augusten pronounces the word ‘Dad’ by using the word ‘Dead.’ Pets left under ‘Dead’s’ care consistently ended up dead.

Even as an adult, the attempts described by Burroughs to win his father’s approval with his success fall on deaf ears. This book seems strikingly authentic to me. It was written by someone who has been there.

The memoir concludes with examples in Burroughs’ adult life where the father has had an effect and even after the father’s death, Augusten’s hatred for him continues.
This one is the most disturbing dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever read. Burroughs’ prose is exceptional; this man can turn a phrase, and he is a first class writer. He is a true artist with words. This book is a serious writer, purging his soul. An incredibly honest and open book, the irony of this book will keep you on edge for hours. A searing, haunting, unflinching journey into the truth; this is a great book for the ages.

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