Burroughs tries too hard while tracing history of sociopathic dad
In previous memoirs, Augusten Burroughs concentrated on his mother, a mentally ill poet with delusions of grandeur. His father was frequently shunted to the sidelines, and at times, one could almost sympathize with his being saddled with a self-absorbed harpy of a wife and seeking refuge at the bottom of a bottle. But now it’s time for the rest of the story — at least from Augusten’s point of view.
Although this book revisits some familiar territory — the "smoking, oily wreckage" of Burroughs’ parents’ marriage — it does so from a new perspective. Gone are the skewed observations, gallows humor and over-the-top eccentricities of "Running with Scissors" and "Dry." Instead, Burroughs channels his inner child’s crystal clarity and lack of guile, capturing the unconditional adoration one usually has for one’s father. But in this case, that adoration is literally kept at arm’s length, frequently swatted away in tired irritation, or sharply rebuked.
Initially, Dr. John G. Robison, a philosophy professor at the University of Amherst, Massachusetts, who died in 2005, seems guilty of being an exceptionally distant father, hobbled by psioratic arthritis, a busy work schedule and a hellish marriage. He’s the dad who gave his son a baseball glove but never explained how to catch. It’s not surprising that the young Augusten took his father’s clothes to make a stuffed dummy so he could have some sort of contact with the man. However, as Burroughs gets older a more sinister aspect of his father emerges.
"My father was a careful construction. A studied husk. That’s why when he smiled, it was wrong. The smile simply unzipped his face to reveal the darkness behind it," he writes.
Very quickly, the book takes a turn into Stephen King territory: Picture Danny Torrance from "The Shining," only without any psychic powers to protect himself from his alcoholic father.
In one of the book’s more sensational parts, Augusten and his mother vacate the house after a vicious fight with her husband. When they return home, Augusten’s first thought is the welfare of his pet guinea pig, who was left behind in his father’s care. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that Mr. Robison is a crummy pet-sitter.
Some have sneered at Burroughs’ depiction of his father as a scabrous boogeyman, but both Burroughs’ mother and older brother have corroborated the gist of these events to "The New York Times," however, each has different perceptions of the events. In one standout scene, there’s a blazing argument between Burroughs’ parents and his brother. So Augusten runs into his brother’s room, grabs a gun, shoves the weapon into his brother’s hands and begs him to shoot their father. Augusten describes it as a rifle, but his brother remembers it as a BB gun.
Fans of Burroughs’ previous books might have difficulties with "A Wolf at the Table." Its tone is unrelentingly grim. Readers will also question the author’s authenticity, and the book’s frequent descents into melodrama don’t help. At times, one feels that Burroughs might be trying too hard.
There’s not much of a sense of closure, either. As Burroughs grows older, he maintains a polite but distant relationship with his father, mainly by telephone, "recit[ing] my small accomplishments" as an advertising executive. Even on his deathbed, Robison has nothing to say to him. "All he was guilty of was not wanting me," Burroughs sadly concludes.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2008.