Oscar Wilde once famously said that all women become like their mothers; that’s their tragedy. He added, “No man does. That’s his.”
Wilde was implying that all men become like their fathers. The fact is, the last book I read by Augusten Burroughs was his memoir about his disturbing, probably sociopathic father, A Wolf at the Table. Not many readers liked that book, but I did. I also believed every word—it rang true to me, though I remember at the time that several reviewers questioned it.
Burroughs has always been able to present the gruelling facts of his life in a funny way, a way that the reader will quickly swallow. It probably helps that he worked in advertising for many years. While I loved Running with Scissors and Dry, his memoir about rehab, as I’ve gotten older, I pulled away from his work a bit. I haven’t followed his personal life either. So I came to Lust & Wonder with beginner’s mind, almost. Knowing the story of his background, but not knowing what the book was going to be about.
Well, it’s a relationship memoir. And the punchline of the memoir, which I didn’t know going in, was that Burroughs married his agent, Christopher, in 2013. So it’s the memoir of a happily committed man looking back over the two dreadful relationships he had before he realized he was in love with his longtime agent, who he’d known for ten years and up until then had a platonic friendship with.
Relationship memoirs are slippery things. I’ve written one myself, and the thing is, the writer never comes out of it looking good. The trick is to make it somehow universal, so that the reader can at least nod along and say “I’ve been there.”
The first lover Burroughs discusses before he gets sober, Mitch, is almost an afterthought, perhaps thrown in to give the book some balance. Mitch is a writer and both Burroughs and Mitch cheat on each other. The sex isn’t good, and Burroughs blames Mitch for his lack of desire, in a pattern that continues. That relationship quickly and nastily ends, though Burroughs starts writing, and he meets his longtime agent, Christopher, blond and funny, and begins to have some literary success. Then Dennis comes along: the nice, stable guy that Burroughs thinks he wants. The 9/11 events happen around this time, cementing the lovers quickly into a committed relationship. But from the beginning they barely have a sex life, as Burroughs tells it.
Sadly, while Lust & Wonder contains many funny passages and some wry wisdom, it seems very much like revisionist history. Instead of Burroughs castigating himself for not initiating a relationship with Christopher when they first met (he was attracted, but convinced himself not to go there), he lets his unfortunate long-term lover Dennis bear much of the blame for the nine-year boring relationship limbo that ensued.
Burroughs nails Dennis on almost everything in the middle section of the book. His friends are soul-numbing:
“It’s not that I hate your friends,” I lied. “It’s that none of them seem to have any real affection for you. It’s almost like they’re generic.”
Dennis is someone that Burroughs feels safe with, though. On reflection, when I put the book down, I realized that Burroughs’s uneasy feelings towards his father must have prompted him to stay in the relationship, because Wolf at the Table describes Burroughs’s intense fear of and hatred for his dad, whose every action is ambiguous and possibly sinister, and who was certainly violently abusive to Burroughs’s mother. (His poor mother is still referred to here as “a mentally ill poet,” which seems awfully dismissive, considering what Burroughs must have learned by now about mental illness and the roots of it.)
But safety only goes so far. Dennis is passive-aggressive:
Dennis seemed to be one of those people who had decades of rage simmering below the surface, masked by a smile.
Burroughs plays his part too, simmering with fury at being judged by Dennis:
I was sober and in a relationship, and that was supposed to be better than being a drunk, but I also felt like, at least when I was a drunk alone in my apartment, I didn’t feel like my walls resented me or wished I was something other than the mess I was.
This is the crux of the issue. Burroughs is a mess of anxiety from his childhood (and even when he gets with the happy-go-lucky Christopher, the anxiety continues, I note). The problem does not seem to be with Dennis in this book, and I feel badly for Dennis, since Burroughs has not changed the first names of his boyfriends.
There is some insight. Burroughs muses:
Perhaps we’d been not in a relationship together, after all, so much as crouching together in the same hiding space, a true limited liability partnership.
The account of the two of them finally going to therapy together (their one doomed attempt at doing so) makes me distrust Burroughs even more, for while Dennis is trying to muddle along to save the relationship—which he still doesn’t realize is completely over, since Burroughs hasn’t told him!— Burroughs simply declares that they are there to break up. It’s no wonder that the therapist, whom he rather meanly labels Joyce Carol after Joyce Carol Oates, hates him and refuses to see the couple again. He has already decided he’s madly in love with his agent though he hasn’t told Dennis, and the betrayal of that (since Dennis and Christopher are longtime friends!) is not sufficiently explored, in my opinion.
This book has quite a bit of mean humor in it. While I felt very sorry for Burroughs in his previous books about his damaged parents and his terrible, unstable childhood, I reflected while I read this book on the havoc that an unstable, insecure person can wreak in relationships. This wasn’t the intended message, was it? But it’s what came across.
I’m sincerely glad for Burroughs that he’s happy with Christopher, but I can’t help thinking what might happen if Christopher ever starts to pull away. That seems to be the point at which demons arise in Augusten Burroughs, quite understandable demons, perhaps, considering his past. When he briefly labels Dennis as having borderline personality disorder, though, I smiled, because it was such an obvious projection of the author himself, who fits the diagnosis perfectly.
And yet this slippery, complicated person is a good writer. Here’s the biggest takeaway from the book, which he does sound sincere about:
“I know now: what is is all that matters. Not the thing you know is meant to be, not what could be, not what should be, not what ought to be, not what once was.
Only the is.”
It’s a Zen moment in a memoir that could have used more of them.
(Lust & Wonder is currently $12.99 on Kindle (on preorder). I received an ARC from NetGalley for this review.)