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'Running with Scissors' author revisits youth

"A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father" (St. Martin's Press, 242 pages, $24.95), by Augusten Burroughs: Imagine all the terrible things that could possibly happen in childhood and you'll find them in Augusten Burroughs' newest memoir, "A Wolf at the Table."Physical and mental child abuse. Spousal abuse. Animal abuse. Hints of sexual abuse. Malnutrition, guns, drugs, alcohol, decay, rape, illn
/ Source: The Associated Press

"A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father" (St. Martin's Press, 242 pages, $24.95), by Augusten Burroughs: Imagine all the terrible things that could possibly happen in childhood and you'll find them in Augusten Burroughs' newest memoir, "A Wolf at the Table."

Physical and mental child abuse. Spousal abuse. Animal abuse. Hints of sexual abuse. Malnutrition, guns, drugs, alcohol, decay, rape, illness and, yes, possibly even murder. Murder? Really?

At its heart, this is the story of a sensitive boy desperate for attention from his distant, angry father. Burroughs reaches for his father's hand and is swatted away; tries to hug his father and is slapped; searches for common ground and is told to go away.

Like most boys, Augusten sees his father as a larger than life figure. His father lords over the house and his mother, dealing with the same, if not worse abuse from her husband, withdraws into herself and often leaves Augusten to fend for himself. Alone, Augusten dreams of a happy family and a father who loves him.

On numerous occasions, he and his mother move out. During one such move, his father neglects and kills Augusten's beloved guinea pig. The spell is broken and Augusten no longer wants his father's affection; he wants him dead. Guns are drawn in a made-for-the-movies scene and eventually, he and his mother move out and his parents divorce. Burroughs rarely speaks to his father in the years following and when his father dies, nothing is resolved.

This is a sad, if not wholly unusual story. Throughout the first 100 pages you may think, "OK, so your father didn't hug you enough." But it gets worse, much worse, as we knew it would. Burroughs dishes out exactly what his readers probably wanted: unhappy episode after unhappy episode after unhappy episode.

"A Wolf at the Table" is not a pleasurable read. There is little humor and (thankfully) little dwelling on how his father's actions made him feel. His father was quite possibly a very dangerous man and the events that Burroughs includes clearly make for a sad, lonely, confusing, scary childhood.

But what is unclear is why we should want to read about it.

Memoir should explore some sort of new ground, challenge and explore notions of truth and telling the truth, how we remember and how these memories relate to universals. At the very least, they should tell a good story. "A Wolf at the Table" does none of these things. It reads as another of Burroughs' pleas for pity, only this time, he tries to keep a completely straight face. But without attempts at witty realizations, self-deprecating quips or utter strangeness so loved by critics and readers in "Running With Scissors," the melodrama is utterly overwhelming.

For example: "When I returned home, he was never waiting for me at the door with a kiss, like my mother. He was downstairs in the bedroom or at the kitchen table grading papers, not to be disturbed. On these nights, I opened a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli and ate it unheated straight from the can." These sorts of sad, but pointless anecdotes occur repeatedly.

Given the number of memoirs recently exposed as either partly or completely fictional — Margaret Seltzer, James Frey and Burroughs' own legal troubles over the veracity of "Running With Scissors" to name a few — readers are justified in reading with a grain of salt.

While there is nothing to suggest that "Wolf at the Table" is fiction, it will no doubt be on readers' minds and certain facts do stretch the limits. Burroughs begins the book with memories from age 2, for example. It also seems strange that with all the physical and emotional signs of abuse Burroughs displayed as a young child, no one outside the family _ teachers, family, doctors, neighbors, police — intervened in even the smallest way.

We are to assume that this book, as Burroughs has said of his other memoirs, is how he remembered events, not what may actually have been.

And we readers, if we choose to read this memoir, should focus only on what he is telling us and he is telling us that he suffered and continues to suffer. Period. We are reading about terrible events for the sake of reading about terrible events.

Well, perhaps there are those who like that sort of thing.