Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father by Augusten Burroughs

*looks around*

Psst... There's no one here. You know what that's time for me to attempt a book review in relative quiet. It's time for me to reflect on whether or not I did or did not like A Wolf at the Table though I fear the ultimate conclusion will still be that I don't really know.

Augusten Burroughs' father never loved him. Apparently, not even one little bit. As a child, Augusten's enthusiastic greetings were stalled by his fathers ever-interfering Arms. When young Augusten decides to keep a "scientific" tally of how many times his father says "not now" or "go away" versus how many times he says "come here," the results are so overwhelmingly negative that Augusten is ashamed to say he even tried to measure such a thing. Not only was his father astonishingly unloving, he was also, as Augusten realized not too far into his young life, remarkably unlovable. Father had a sadistic streak that made simple things like owning pets or asking to get an ice cream cone exercises in terror. One after the other Burroughs chronicles his most horrific memories of a father who was profoundly disturbed and wonders if he will grow up to be like the monster that struck terror into anyone who could see past the surprisingly normal face he projected to the outside world.

If I were to give in to my first impression, I would have to say that, above all, this book is depressing. Probably the most depressing thing I've read all year, maybe the most depressing thing I've read in a few years. As the book moved into its second hundred pages I was reading it with the trepidation of the easily scared watching a horror movie (Oh nooo, don't leave the guinea pig behind with him! Don't ask to get an ice cream cone! Don't put those cookies in the shopping cart - it can only end badly!). After reading this book, there is surely no doubt in my mind that Burroughs' father was totally unhinged and reprehensible in nearly every way.

So, that's my initial reaction. This book is too depressing to be enjoyed. Why would any happiness seeking human being ever want to read something so utterly dispiriting?

(But wait, I promised ambiguous feelings, and I don't plan to disappoint.)

Whenever I could seperate myself from the unfortunate happenings inherent in this book, it occurred to me repeatedly that Augusten Burroughs is really a great writer. Despite its more depressing properties, I never once thought that I wanted to lay this book down and not finish it. From the very start, this book has a touch of brilliance. Burroughs brings to life his early childhood memories in a perfectly clear and surreal manner in which those memories tend to linger. They're filled with smells, textures, in almost photographic glimpses in which memories from such a young age seem to manifest themselves. Burroughs puts into words the essence of his childish enthusiasm for loving his father and the crushing and shameful disappointment he felt when he realized his advances never seemed to penetrate his father's, at best, indifference toward him. He pinpoints the exact moments when he began to understand, and in some measure accept, the most difficult truths about his father. He captures that tension between desperately wanting to be loved and fiercely hating the same person he can't help hoping will love him unconditionally. He insightfully contemplates what a father should be and whether he did or did not turn out to posess the worst qualities of his own father.

"Can we go outside?" I asked, embarrassed because I knew I was leaking hope the way our dog Cream would sometimes squirt pee on the floor when she was excited.

He folded himself into the rocking chair in the living room, exhaling loudly as he sat. "Oh, not now. You go play. I'm in a lot of pain."

"Just for a minute?" I begged.

He closed his eyes. "I'm very tired right now. You go on and play with your new glove."

I walked away, carrying the mitt by the wrist strap. The trouble was, I didn't know how to play with it.

I knew I should be very grateful for this extraordinary present, but I couldn't help feeling almost sad. Because before I had a glove, I didn't need a father to throw a ball at me.

A ball. That's when it occurred to me, he'd given me a glove but nothing to catch.

Now that I think about it, it may be because Burroughs' writing is so skillful that this book is so hard to read. We see and feel exactly what Burroughs intends for us to see and feel through his narrative. We come to know the youngster Burroughs was, to understand his deepest desires and to be just as disappointed, angry, and fearful as he once was. A Wolf at the Table is a painful, difficult read, but it is also a sort of cathartic masterwork of a very talented writer.


  1. Wow... thanks for the great review. I thought this would be a tough one for sure, but man, I'll have to read it when I can afford to be depressed, eh? *laugh*

  2. Great review. I have this one waiting on my bookpile- I might have to bump it up a little higher now :-)

  3. Great review. I think this one might be even tougher for me to get through than the Glass Castle.

  4. I haven't read this, but I did read Running with Scissors. I felt the same way: though the subject matter was depressing the writing was brilliant.

  5. Candy - yeah, definitely wait until you're having a good week. I've I'd have read this last week instead of the week before that would have been waaaay too much of a downer!

    Marie - bump it on up. It's a short, quick read but it sure packs a punch. :)

    Jessica - Oh, I've got that one on my TBR pile, too. So that's a big downer, too?

    Julie - It was so hard for me to seperate my feelings about the book. I had such a hard time knowing the rotten things that were about to happen, but his great writing wouldn't let me put it down.

  6. I read Running with Scissors and his father just seemed disinterested. I'll have to check this book out to get the rest of the story.

  7. I've never read anything by Augusten Burroughs, but one of my co-workers said that since I like David Sedaris, I might like him. I'll have to give him a try.