Although Augusten Burroughs says he grew up feeling like a complete outcast, at age 42, seated at a fancy Manhattan restaurant where we've agreed to meet for lunch, he fits right in. Well dressed in a “cashz” New York sort of style—jeans, white shirt, blazer, tiny diamond earring—the lanky, handsome Burroughs is confident and at ease. His deep, sonorous voice is emphatic and writerly, spinning out complete sentences and employing repetition for dramatic flair. When people come by the table to greet us, he's comfortable with the attention and always polite.
Yet you can still sense something of the lost boy in him, the one whose nutty parents sent him to live with an even nuttier psychiatrist (detailed in his bestselling memoir, Running with Scissors), the guy who in his 20s became an accomplished ad copywriter and an even more accomplished substance abuser (Dry). Now, even with more than four million books sold and sufficient renown to turn heads at Michael's, he still repaired to the house he shares with his longtime partner in Amherst, Mass., to spend 18 hours a day, in bed, in agony, writing “the hardest book I've written.” The result is A Wolf at the Table, published by St. Martin's.
Wolf is another memoir, this one about his father. It's set pre-Scissors, before his mother went off and before he was sent to live with the mad shrink (so memorably played by Brian Cox in the hit film). And while readers could be forgiven for wondering what could possibly have been weirder than that—weirder than growing up in a cult—Wolf delivers a tale even more harrowing. “When I was on tour with Scissors,” Burroughs says now, “people would come up to me and say, 'Oh, you had a horrible childhood. 'And I'd always say, 'You have no idea. You don't understand: I gave you dessert first.' ”
The meat, then, of this book is Burroughs's relationship with his father, a professor, whom Burroughs now confidently calls “a psychopath.” It's full of tales of general neglect and vicious mind games, including a particularly disturbing one in which the elder Burroughs, separated from his wife and living apart from the family, called his son and announced he was coming to kill him. A terrified Augusten called the police, who dutifully responded, only to find Burroughs père calmly, soberly sitting in his home denying the whole episode. “My father was a man of darkness, of appetites,” Burroughs says, popping one of the several pieces of Nicorette gum he'll chew during our lunch, having given up smoking nine years ago. “There was something maniacal about him.”
The voice in Wolf, as at this lunch, is vintage Burroughs—wry, funny, pop-culture quick (at one point he quotes the opening scene of the movie Titanic to illustrate how memories, even decades later, can spring so freshly to mind), but also knowing and full of drama. “Writing for me is like breathing... breathing,” he says, adding that while it was perhaps his mother who gave him the tools to write, it was his father who was the “fuel.” And while he dreamed from childhood about “becoming an author,” he “never thought about the readers. And that, now, is what sustains me: someone walking up to me at a reading and connecting. That's why books are profound, more profound than just a product on a shelf in a mall that you can have a 10% discount card for.”
Still, as profound—or cathartic—as writing Wolf might have been, and however moving reading it might be for his fans, the book, thanks to Burroughs's buoyant voice, does not ever read like a screed. “I loved my father, there's no question about that,” Burroughs says, several times. And he says he knew, even as he dug into his memory and read the father's journals he discovered after his death, that that had always been the case. But he isn't sure that the feeling was returned. In a particularly moving epilogue, written in that trademark Burroughsian conversational style that belies the strong emotion underneath, Burroughs describes meeting a man who is just bursting with pride and love for his son, who is about to graduate from Harvard Medical School. “The love, this father's. For his son,” he writes. “It is completely overpowering.... Of course I know fathers love their sons. I have seen movies. I have watched TV. I get it.... But until this moment, I have not felt it. And now, I have. And it is not even mine.”