|A Review By Rebecca James|
|A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father Augusten Burroughs (2008)
I am standing on the long concrete sidewalk that licks out from the bottom step of our front porch to touch the curb where my father's car is idling. He sits inside the car; my memory does not fill in the color or model but does acknowledge the orange and white boat he has hitched up behind it. With the throaty rumble of a car that was probably used in this late 1970s scene, my father pulls away carefully. I am torn. Yards behind me, my mother faces the house, refusing to watch him leave. She has a bright yellow bandana folded carefully into a wide headband covering her hairline; it normally shows off her striking face, but today it only accents the anxiety pulling at her pretty features. I decide to follow her as she ascends the steps onto our covered porch and mechanically opens the front door. I ask only once; then I know he is gone.
Some people may argue that early memories like this one from when I was about three are contrived; the product of the mind assembling stories and pictures into some false image. But I can smell the fumes of the car, feel the twist in my stomach as I became aware of their tension, taste the fear of being left alone on the cracked concrete. As I moved last month, I came across my baby book; my mom sent it to me before she died. In it, documented along with my height, weight, second birthday guests, and favorite stuffed animals, is a single line coolly added in my mother's neat script: "July 19th, 1979: today Ron left again. This time for good." I was shocked at its inclusion, yet it speaks volumes about my mother's distance from me, from everyone. It's funny how revisiting these memories can fill in holes left in our psyche; normally humorous writer Augusten Burroughs does just that in his latest book, A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father.
Burroughs may be best known for his 2002 memoir Running With Scissors, although Dry, which documents his treatment for alcoholism is my favorite. His style of writing has been consistent throughout his books; his deadpan delivery has always turned painful memories into wry, self-deprecating reflections that readers can't seem to get enough of. His latest book, however, is different.
"In Mexico my mother wore thin-soled sandals and looked over her shoulder. She watched me through large, dark sunglasses and said, 'We had to get away from your father. He'd not be safe to be around right now.' [...] I could not fathom what this meant. The things I knew that weren't safe included furious dogs, putting a fork in a toaster, rushing water. How was he like these things? Everywhere we went, an awareness followed us: we were fleeing. The feeling tainted even the food we hastily ate out of the cans stacked in her suitcase, a measure of economy. I was not allowed to have ice because it, too, was unsafe."
Burroughs himself acknowledged the difference in this book from his others in several interviews. It reads as almost cathartic, less for public consumption and more simply available for perusal without approval should readers feel compelled to pick it up. He documents his earliest childhood memories of his father, acknowledges his father's own childhood, details the collapse of his family's trust. This time, he does it without humor. It's a painful, if compelling, book to absorb. Do not read it because you want more of Burroughs's style. Read it to see the ugliness beneath what a talented writer can create from pain.
"As [my father] spoke, I studied his face, his hands, and I felt a black ball of dread begin to form in my stomach. Was I going to look like him when I grew up? Would my teeth rot in my mouth, just like his? Would my skin peel off and leave those patchy areas of raw meat? After all, if that boy in the pictures really was my father, he started off looking an awful lot like me. I desperately wanted to ask him, When I grow up, am I going to turn into you? but I didn't dare. And I wouldn't think about it anymore, either. If you pondered some things, even for an instant, they might become real."
Burroughs's fans might find Wolf to be unexpectedly serious, but once they lose their expectations about his style, the story is fascinating. He does more than just recall images and emotions; the writer relives each moment in words.My own father was (is?) an alcoholic like Burroughs's. Alcoholics provide their children with much fodder for therapy; those of us lucky enough to have creative outlets like art or writing sometimes can funnel those feelings into productive arenas as well. Cracking open a beer with my father outside the liquor store inside the car he had just given me for my sixteenth birthday has always proved to be a useful example of what type of person I don't want to be "when I grow up." Watching him pass out in the passenger seat of his own truck a few years later leaving me to navigate an unfamiliar car through unfamiliar highways alone served as an excellent refresher course as well. Burroughs finds himself dealing with similar scenes throughout the book, including a harrowing decision to break up a fight between his brother and father using a loaded rifle. Kill him he tells his brother, and he begins to imagine life beyond his father's death. Scary stuff. Read it with an open mind.
Rebecca James divides her time between grad study and teaching in Pennsylvania and reading and relaxing in Rehoboth Beach. Direct comments and book suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 09 July11, 2008