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A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
by Augusten Burroughs

When he studies his earliest memories, Augusten Burroughs realizes that his father isn't in any of them. His mother assures him that his father was around, but at best he's a shadowy presence on the periphery. What Burroughs does remember of his father from later years is a cruel, manipulative man. To the world, his father is a mild-mannered professor of philosophy, smiling and eager to please. But at night, when he comes home and has had a few drinks, he ignores his son, starving him of affection. As Augusten grows older, his father begins playing games with him, making his son's life hellish while his mother, suicidal and depressed, does nothing to stop him.

I have read one or two of Burroughs' books before, and they were pretty funny. A Wolf at the Table is not. It is a dark, horrible story of systematic, emotional child abuse. There are multiple occasions of animal abuse – including a particularly gruesome scene in which Burroughs' father intentionally lets his son's pet guinea pig starve to death. The book is moody, atmospheric, terrible. But is it true?

There are a couple of things that pop out as odd. First, Burroughs claims to have very early memories. He describes things like taking his first steps – not as an older man remembering stories he was told, but through the perspective of a toddler. Do I think that he really remembers that far back? No, not really. Second, Burroughs claims that his parents had a very distinctive way of pronouncing his name – "August-EN" that he disliked as a child. But 'Augusten Burroughs' is a name the author adopted when he turned eighteen – he was born and raised as 'Christopher Richter Robison'. Maybe his parents may have had an unusual way of saying 'Christopher' that he disliked, but it's still odd. Burroughs' father was an alcoholic, suffering from a chronic disease with a mentally unstable wife, and emotionally distant from his son – but I'm not sure he was quite as awful as he appears here.

The audio version of this book, for some odd reason, had several songs included, written and performed by Patti Smith, Tegan Quin, Sea Wolf, and Ingrid Michaelson. That's something I've never seen done in an audio book before, and it's an interesting idea. But I don't think the music really adds anything to the book. It seems more like Burroughs went up to his publisher and said, “Hey, I'm the author and I'm friends with these musicians, so I'm gonna get them to perform on my audio book!” The author also read his own book. Most of the time, it was OK – he read the book rather slowly, but it was easy listening. Every once in a while, though, he would get caught up in his own drama and launch into this over-the-top, melodramatic crying that sounded so fake and desperate that I couldn't take it seriously anymore.

If you're looking for Burroughs' characteristic wit, it's sadly lacking in this grim little volume of misery. I'm also not sold on this book as a “memoir” - obviously, I wasn't there but something about Burroughs' childhood recollections doesn't ring completely true. He's an unreliable narrator, and with his father conveniently dead there's no one to present the other side of the story. I wouldn't recommend this unless you're interested in neverending tales of woe that come to no resolution.

2.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about A Wolf at the Table, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley
2011: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Vol. 1 by Eiji Osuka and Housui Yamazaki
2010: News: Used Booksellers on the impact of e-books
2009: Discussion Question: Penguin Books
2008: The Necklace by Cheryl Jarvis


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