How many lurid memoirs can a writer get away with before we suspect he’s full of baloney? In his tart 2002 best-seller, Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs chronicled his teenage years in the freewheeling home of his mother’s shrink, including an affair at age 13 with a 33-year-old former patient of the doctor’s. He wrote about his subsequent battle with alcoholism in Dry. Now, in an overwrought, unconvincing prequel, A Wolf at the Table, he reaches into the murky depths of early childhood to exhume his tortured relationship with his father, whom he presents as a sadistic ghoul with rotting teeth, grotesquely peeling skin, and an unexplained penchant for stalking Augusten through the woods at night.
Born into the ”smoking, oily wreckage” of his parents’ marriage, Burroughs initially adored his dad, a philosophy professor at a New England college. But, like many buttoned-up men of the 1960s, his father rejected his affectionate overtures, leaving Burroughs to create a stuffed doll out of clothes borrowed from his dad’s closet. He’d sprinkle Old Spice on the slacks, smear Eucerin on the collar, then cuddle up with the father-scented effigy at bedtime. Or so he says.
This theatrical love for ”Dead” (his Freudian mispronunciation of ”Dad”) soon became loathing. When he was 9, Burroughs returned home after a week away to discover that his father had let his beloved guinea pig, Ernie, starve to death. Worse, he seemed to enjoy witnessing his son’s grief. Among dad’s other ”crimes”: He refused to buy Burroughs cookies at the Stop & Shop and — in one blurry, nonsensical sequence — chased his son through the forest like a werewolf.
Where is the man inside this supposed monster? In passing, the author mentions his dad had psoriasis so severe that it bloodied his shirts (which disgusted Burroughs), and arthritis so excruciating he couldn’t play catch (which Burroughs resented). He was also an alcoholic stuck in a miserable marriage. Yet Burroughs’ portrait of this troubled man is blithely incurious, devoid of empathy, and maddeningly self-centered.
In 2005, the family Burroughs lived with as a teenager sued him, alleging that he fabricated and sensationalized events in Scissors; last year, he settled for an undisclosed sum. There is no one to challenge his version of events in Wolf, as his father is dead. There is no one who can deny that he spread Eucerin on that father-size doll, or that ”Dead” was responsible for a guinea pig’s death. It hardly matters. Even if everything in this book went down exactly as Burroughs tells it, not a single page rings true. C-