Since breaking out in 2002 with Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs has kept the bestselling memoirs coming, tapping the seemingly bottomless market of those willing to buy tickets to someone else’s catastrophes.
There may not be tons of people who experienced a childhood as scarifying as the one Burroughs depicts in Scissors, but the book turned family dysfunction, squalor, neglect, sex abuse and mental illness into an extreme sport, and did so with a mordant sense of humor and the absurd. It was a train wreck with clowns, and the hordes couldn’t get enough.
Disputes over the memoir’s truthfulness, including a defamation lawsuit that Burroughs and his lawyers settled out of court in 2007, didn’t faze Burroughs or his publisher, who brought out Dry, A Wolf at the Table, Magical Thinking and others.
An NPR commentator cited the “excruciating hilarity” that helped Scissors find a big readership. Lust & Wonder has the same quality, minus the hilarity. Burroughs seems smart and funny, so why did I find myself wanting to shout: “Just break up with the guy!” or “What’s so terrible about being single?”
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There is quite a bit of “previously, on the ‘Augusten Burroughs Show’ ” material, including recaps of his precocious success as an advertising copywriter, a lengthy bout of severe alcoholism, rehab, AA and ongoing psychotherapy. The primary focus is on a series of adult relationships, one short-term and ill-fated, one long-term and meh, one a dream come true.
Burroughs loves the idea of dating Mitch, who has published two novels, but the reality of their romance sours fast. For one thing, Mitch clears a high bar by proving to be more of a miserablist than Burroughs. Their troubles, barely interesting when first recounted, are then reviewed in sessions with a therapist that show the narrator’s inability to discern the difference between a whacked-out charlatan and an insightful professional.
Writing a comic novel about a TV shopping channel (published as Sellevision) helps Burroughs replace his lethal drinking habit with an obsessive writing one. It also leads him to Christopher, a literary agent. Though attracted, Burroughs rejects pursuit due to Christopher’s shortness, his HIV-positive status and the duo’s professional relationship.
An online search nets handsome and “normal” Dennis, who likes jazz and NPR and is prone to saying such things as “I think it means you are becoming your truest self.” Despite Burroughs’ initial doubts about everything from Dennis’ too-small mouth to their so-so sex life, they transition into long-term couplehood, complete with dogs and a custom-built home in Massachusetts.
Ten years and many therapy sessions later, Burroughs realizes that he and Dennis are over, a conclusion many readers will have drawn many pages earlier.
Burroughs realizes his true Valentine has been there all along. The feeling turns out to be mutual, which ushers in a refreshing and welcome finale, complete with the faint promise of some authorial contentment.
Given Burroughs’ statement that “it was tiring being me. I was tired of me,” we can only wish him luck.
Claude Peck reviewed this book for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).