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May 1, 2010

Let’s Kick Augusten Burroughs Around Again, Just For the Heck of It





When I last ceased and desisted beating up on faux memoirist Augusten Burroughs, I was whining about the way he had left us honest, hardworkin’ memoirists in the lurch by getting himself successfully sued for defamation by the family portrayed in his breakthrough work, Running With Scissors. At least, I think that’s where I left off. Truth be told, I have launched so many anti-Burroughs screeds on this site that I can no longer keep track of all of them. I could be getting a cavity filled or buying stamps or doing just about any darn thing when, without provocation, I’ll just suddenly go off on Burroughs. The man does that to me.

Whenever that last published screed was, something remarkable has happened since then: I have finally gotten around to reading an actual Augusten Burroughs memoir, the very same Running With Scissors. This qualifies me—to my thinking at least—to denigrate Burroughs’s writing skills as well as his self-preserving and moronic legal tactics.

Needless to say, I lit into Running With Scissors with every intention of despising it. I can’t remember ever wanting so badly for a book to be bad. In any event, I was bound and determined not to let the thing elicit a laugh from me, unless it be a derisive snort.

Alas, I’m here today with a heavy heart to tell you that Augusten Burroughs is a good writer. He’s funny, fairly compelling, and above all inventive. (Of course, “inventive” is not necessarily a word you want applied to you when you’re trying to pass yourself off as a nonfiction writer, but let’s not spoil this conciliatory mood just yet.) I managed to hew to my vow not to laugh out loud, but I came close a number of times. Here’s Burroughs describing a nurse at a home for the aged:

She walked with the gait of a horse wrangler and her forearms were thick and muscular, like she’d had loaves of French bread implanted under the skin.

That’s good shit right there. Take it from me: I’m, like, a writer or something. I’m supposed to know good humor writing.

Alas, the home for the elderly that Burroughs depicts probably never existed. (The woman with the French bread arms probably did, but whether as a nurse or not is problematic.) I don’t believe that Burroughs and his friend Natalie insinuated themselves into the old folks’ home in order to entertain the inmates with a free a cappella concert. I don’t believe one of the elderly patrons dissed them by sputtering “Fuck this shit.” (Burroughs sucks at dialogue, by the way. Thus far will I promo my own talents: I’m far better at credibly reconstructing decades-old dialogue in a memoir than he is.) I don’t believe anything in the chapters that immediately border the chapter about the home for the aged, and I don’t believe approximately 87.475 percent of all that is written in this book.

If you’re like me, you find yourself at first saying, “If only this were a true story!” while reading Burroughs. Then, as you get deeper into his tales of the sexual exploitation of minors and doctor-assisted fake suicides and giant turds fished out of the toilet bowl to extract their clairvoyant powers, you begin to think it for the best that it is, in fact, all made up.

And at that point you start saying, instead, “If only he’d just marketed the thing as a novel!” To be sure, the book would not have become the sensation that it did if honestly labeled fiction. Burroughs would not have moved as many units nor made as much money. But with his considerable writing chops and feel for dark comedy, the book still would have been noticed, and he very likely still would have sold the film rights to it. And whatever money he did make from it he could have kept instead of losing in a lawsuit!!

Running With Scissors might have been received as sort of poor man’s A Prayer for Owen Meany if he had gone the fiction route: another outlandish narrative about eccentric New Englanders and how they interact with the staid society around them. It’s that good, in my opinion, and I can’t believe I’m making nice with Augusten Burroughs…

But Burroughs chose the Dark Side. He chose instead to pass the whole fizzy concoction off as a true story, and continues to do so even now, three years after his courtroom trouncing. He singlehandedly made the nonfiction label toxic to every well-intentioned memoirist who would follow him. And let us never forget that this is why he needs to be dragged out into the daylight and kicked around the parking lot once every year or so.

See you same time next spring, Augusten.