HE MIGHT BE one of America’s best memoirists. Augusten Burroughs’s stories are gory, and frank. His descriptions are searing. I half threw-up reading A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of my Father, his less-read but perhaps strongest memoir.
There is no doubt that it’s good, maybe one of the best. What is up for debate, however, is whether it’s all real.
Find out my take in my review of A Wolf at the Table…
Augusten Burroughs never questioned where he came from: “His ejaculation had created me, his orgasm resulted in the fact of me, standing there behind him. One erection, a number of thrusts, a release. And there I stood.” What Burroughs did wonder, from boyhood and beyond, was whether or not he would be like his father.
Like the animal in question, Burroughs’ dad creeps slowly into his book, A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father, but it doesn’t take long to see him as a beast. The author of several sad and strange yet funny memoirs, including the New York Times bestselling Running with Scissors, Burroughs has no humour for the story of a man barely mentioned in his other books. It’s as if he saved the worst story, perhaps the best story, for last.
Set in rural Massachusetts and told through the eyes of his adolescent self, Burroughs uncovers a disturbing childhood entirely unlike others in the child abuse genre. Yes, there was drinking, yelling and shoving. But A Wolf at the Table reveals a home where the father lets the family dog die of a tumour on its tongue, tries to run the car into a telephone pole with his son in the front seat, and forces a guinea pig to starve to death, scraping its cage with feces-covered claws.
Where Burroughs’ valium-dependent wannabe writer mother was the force behind Running with Scissors, here she is a soft-spoken carer trying to guard her son against a man she only married because “he said he’d kill himself,” a worsening psychopath who sleeps in the same house.
And yet, in the beginning, Burroughs is desperate for his father. Pacing at the front door until he comes home from work and begging to be on his father’s lap, the author succeeds in capturing the yearnings of a boy who wants his dad’s attention and won’t ever get it. To solve this Burroughs builds a stuffed dad out of the real one’s clothes and naps on the figure’s cologne-infused chest. And then his hope turns to hate.
We don’t see these things, we sense them. One of Burroughs’ triumphs as a memoirist writing about abuse is that throughout A Wolf at the Table, his story is not read but felt. The searing truth of his descriptions form sleeping bags of sentences.
One of Burroughs’ triumphs as a memoirist writing about abuse is that…his story is not read but felt. The searing truth of his descriptions form sleeping bags of sentences.
Following a short stay in the hospital after her mental breakdown, Burroughs says, “When at last my mother returned home, she was so sapped of energy and appallingly thin that I straight away worried all her most essential qualities had been left behind in the ward. I could so easily imagine a nurse’s aid seeing a dark, tangled mass on the floor and sweeping it into a dustbin, not realizing it was my mother’s spirit.”
Sometimes his scenes are so shocking and evocative they could make the reader physically ill. For example, Burroughs drops us into his parents’ bedroom, outside which he hears his mother gagging and his father calling her a “fucking bitch.” “The sound of my mother’s crying warbled, she moaned miserably. ‘John, please,’ she begged. I heard the springs of their bed creak, then a frantic, rhythmic squealing from the mattress as though it were screaming. My mother’s muffled cries. My father’s low, guttural curses: Bitch. Whore. Cunt.”
Employing dialogue and detail with precision, Burroughs, a writer who left school at eleven, also engages his readers with his mastery of the senses. All of them.
Cucumber sandwiches are “the taste of summer, like biting into the actual day itself.”
Sound is a life form, “A tear, a rip in the fabric of the house. ‘Fuck you,’ screamed my brother. ‘Fuck you’ like a boomerang, loose in the house, knocking over lamps, ricocheting off walls, smashing glass. Even after the words themselves had evaporated from the air…I could still feel them and their consequences.”
Smell becomes a character, good when it appears as his violin, an instrument of “wood, rosin, and velvet that I loved. The best part of every lesson was opening the violin case and lowering my face to inhale.” Smell is bad when it tips him off that his mother has returned from the hospital as someone else, “Her eyes frightened me, there was too much white. Her breath was all wrong. She was too animal. Something was wrong with her mind.”
It’s fitting that Burroughs explores the core of human senses. This is what children and animals do instinctively. And that’s what A Wolf at the Table suggests, that we’re all animals, prey and offspring.
A Wolf at the Table suggests we’re all animals, prey and offspring.
As a baby, one of Burroughs’ first memories is a sound: “…my mother’s breathy humming in my ear, her voice the most familiar thing to me, more known than my own hand.”
It’s a beautiful line, but is it real? In another paragraph the author recalls not just “the thickly slippery feel of my bottle’s rubber nipple inside my mouth,” but also “the shocking, sudden emptiness that fills me when it’s pulled away.”
It’s hard not to question the depths of Burroughs’ infant memories. The incidents happened ages ago, and how could anyone recall not just something, but so much, about his first months of life? Well, only he knows. Our job is to trust him. His job is to play the film of his life through his eyes. Besides, most of today’s memoirists subscribe to Joan Didion’s idea (from Reading a Notebook), that if you remember it, it’s true.
Burroughs must have seen our doubts coming, and tries to convince us of his mind’s capacity by recounting a conversation with his mother about being two years old and touching a neighbour’s bushes. Were it not for his accuracy, she wouldn’t have believed him, “I’m amazed that you can remember that far back.”
He tried to forget everything about his father. And, for a while, he succeeded. But the memories came back, along with his greatest fear and the narrative’s nagging question: Am I going to be like him? Burroughs, you might guess, becomes not the man his father was, but himself – a talented, if troubled, American writer.
(A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of my Father. St. Martin’s Press: New York. 2008)
What are your thoughts on Burroughs’s ability to recall infant memories? Do you subscribe to Joan Didion’s theory on memoir and memory recall:If you remember it, it’s true?