“The thing with memoir is that it’s not court stenography, and it shouldn’t be. We have video for that. We have YouTube for that. And I don’t understand the criticism. This is not a trial, where I’m recounting a murder and every action must be photographed and documented and measured with a tape measure. It’s a life.
“It’s a very peculiar fixation. It’s like asking the orange: ‘Why? Why do you have the pits? Why aren’t you smooth like the apple? Why? Why do you have to have the little indentations? No one licks the indentations, no one hides anything in the indentations, it’s not like those little indentations are useful. Why do you have them?’ ”
Burroughs, it should be said, does seem to have an uncanny knack for voices. I notice that, whenever he tells a story about his father, he drops into an impromptu little Dad impression: a slow, low, doltish voice with a southern accent. (“Wul, son, y’know, long time ago. Dudn’t matter.”) When I ask him if this is really what his father sounded like, instead of answering normally, he breaks eye contact, and his gaze drifts into some kind of wormhole several light-years behind my left ear, and he answers my question by channeling his father himself:
“Uh, uh, a better … impression, uh, of my father,” he says, in a halting, flat voice. “Wou-would, would, would be—like I say, uh, a better, impression, of my fa—if I were to try, if I were to attempt an impression of my father.” He keeps staring blankly at the wall of the restaurant. “What I would do, first, primarily, is, A, I would try to—attempt—the cadence, with which he spoke. And then further if I was, again, engaging in this impression of my father, B, I would try—and though I may fail, like I say, I would try, but I may fail, to imitate: the tone, of his voice.”
His eyes click back over to mine. “That’s my father,” he says.
A Wolf at the Table is essentially the prequel to Running With Scissors, although it’s significantly more painful and probably two-thirds less funny. It tells the story of the young Augusten’s suffering at the hands of his sadistic father, a dry-lipped, black-toothed, lesion-plagued professor of logic and ethics. (He died three years ago.) The book swings between scenes of pathos and terror. Preadolescent Augusten, desperate for affection, stuffs his father’s old clothes with pillows and cuddles with them at night; Dad murders Augusten’s guinea pig, magically retrains the family dog to be vicious, and tries to kill his son in a car accident. Burroughs often describes his writing in therapeutic terms, as “venting,” or “swatting branches out of the way in a dense forest”; often, his books begin as journal entries (Dry was harvested from an 1,800-page computer file called “mess, collected”), and they tend to have the strengths and weaknesses of a diary: They can be artless, repetitive, meandering, and mawkish, but also immediate, heartfelt, connective, and sympathetic.
I talk to Burroughs’s older brother, John Elder Robison, about his brother’s version of events. Although he and Burroughs grew up largely apart, they are now neighbors in Amherst. Robison tells me, in a voice that sounds 100 percent identical to Burroughs’s impression of it, that he and his brother are opposites. Owing to his Asperger’s, he tends to be “flat and logical,” while Burroughs is “entirely governed by emotion.” (As Burroughs later puts it, “My brother has the emotion of an IBM laptop computer.”) Because of this, they often experience the same events in radically different ways. Still, Robison insists that his brother is honest.
“I really feel strongly that people are critical of my brother because he’s so emotional. But that absolutely does not mean it’s made up. Just because somebody dramatizes the emotional content of something in their mind does not make it false.”
Burroughs’s mother has said that she, too, remembers some things differently. She’s currently working on her own memoir. Robison published his, Look Me in the Eye, last year.
After dinner, Burroughs and I walk in continuous disorienting loops around the Village while he extracts more baubles from his memory-hoard. We pass his favorite independent bookstore, which is now a Chase bank. He tells me about the time he met Academy Award winner Linda Hunt while holding a fresh handful of dog feces. (“And I’m thinking, ‘Okay, so what are the chances of just an average guy meeting any Academy Award winner in his life? And what are the chances further of meeting that Academy Award winner while holding dog shit? And what are the chances that they would be the only dwarf Academy Award winner?’ It just seemed spectacular.”) We pass a real-estate agency that used to be a corner store with an oddly distinctive smell—like “sour milk and earth,” he says, “but somehow neither.” I ask Burroughs what memoir he’s going to write next. Growing up with his brother? Nursing his bulldog back from a spinal injury? Overcoming his addiction to M&Ms?