Memoirs are interesting creatures; a well-written memoir has the ability to crawl under your skin and stay there, waiting for you to understand the deeper meanings of the life experiences that the author pained to put into words. I have found that the best memoirs, the ones that are honest, raw, and ring true to life, are the ones that grow in your mind long after you read them, the ones that replay themselves in your head after a phone conversation with your mother or a fight with your father.
I read Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors about six months ago and, while I certainly liked it, I felt as though it were a bit flat, a bit one dimensional for my taste. I loved how honest the text is, how ridiculously funny it is, and the unique style of his writing, but I couldn’t really find anything to relate to. I enjoyed the story as a story, but couldn’t find a shared emotion or experience that was strong enough to act as an anchor, to allow me to latch onto. This may have been because of all of the hype the book received (and the fact that, though I never saw the movie, I couldn’t get the image of Gwenyth Paltrow and her massive amounts of eyeliner out of my head), but for some reason it was no more than an incredibly well-written story to me.
A Wolf at the Table is nothing like Running with Scissors. I will never understand how this book was met with mixed reviews, how everyone I knew hasn’t read it yet, or how it ended up on sale for less than $5 at Barnes and Noble. This is easily the best memoir I have ever read.
In this book, Burroughs brings to life the toxic relationship that he had with his father. A drunk professor plagued with psoriasis and a dark, homicidal, and secretive personality, his father is an ominous figure. Yet somehow, as a child, Burroughs longs to be close to him, to talk with him, to forge the kind of bond that most fathers and sons share. Only after his father kills his pets, threatens his mother, and tries to kill Augusten himself does he realize that his father is not just distant– he’s not quite right. Over the years Burroughs fights the similarities between himself and his father, searching for little differences between them that tell him he will not grow up to be the kind of evil man that his own father had become. Only after his father is dead can he breathe easily and live his life without the fear of turning into the man who terrorized him for so many years.
The title of this book is perfect– the imagery of a wolf ready to eat, ready to devour its prey, is a wonderful reflection of Burroughs’ father. The anticipation of a wolf before it eats its prey perfectly mirrors the anxiety and tension that ruled the house in which Augusten grew up.
The cover design is also perfect– balanced, full of contrast, and simple.
Anyone who has read Burroughs’ work knows that his writing is brilliant– simple, to the point, yet full of surprising detail and well-thought out technique. A Wolf at the Table, though, takes his craft to a whole new level. The most impressive detail about his writing is how he is so perfectly able to capture the voice of a child. Writing as an adult through the eyes of the child has been done a million times over, but many attempts are tainted with the knowledge of the adult. Burroughs is able to perfectly capture the innocence, loyalty, and heartbreaking rollercoaster of emotions that he faced growing up. One of the scenes that best depicts this childlike perspective, and that has stayed with me since reading the book, describes how excited Augusten is for his father to come home at night:
“My father’s home!” I screamed, wild with pent-up anticipation and sugar from the raw cake batter I’d eaten earlier.
And I ran, sliding over the wood floors and knocking against the walls. “My father’s home!”
It was just so thrilling. He was the missing piece, restored. The king in a game of chess.
As soon as he opened the door, I was on him. In the winter, his hands were icy cold and they made me scream with joy as they touched my face– freezing!– pushing me back. I tried to climb him like a tree. Fighting against his arms, those tricky arms, I had to get around them because they always tried to stop me. “Stop, stop, stop,” he’d say, the arms blocking my way to him.
The fact that he saw the arms as an obstacle, not as a sign that his father didn’t want him around, is heart wrenching. The innocence of the love that Augusten feels for his father is apparent, but unfortunately this innocence is lost and, eventually, he wishes his father dead. The fact that his father is so distant from the very beginning, though, attests to the capacity of the heart of a child to see beyond the cruelty of a person to their core. To them. This dimension, this capability to see beyond the events and capture their meaning, is what was missing from Running with Scissors.
Though this book is well-written enough to resonate with anyone who reads it, it will have special meaning for those of us who have experienced less than perfect relationships with one or both of our parents. Commiserating with little Augusten, not simply understanding his experiences, will certainly add even more meaning to the story for readers.
Overall, this is an amazing story and I am looking forward to reading the book Burroughs is currently writing. I highly, highly recommend A Wolf at the Table to everyone who is up for a dark memoir. However, I will warn readers that this is an intense story– never have a hated a character as much as I hated Augusten’s father.