Familiar Terrain

While charming and clever, Augusten Burroughs is too reluctant to strike new ground in his latest collection

by Tom Avila
Published on July 6, 2006, 12:00am | Comments

Augusten Burroughs is that guy -- that guy who was the star quarterback back in high school, didn't play in college and now lives in the far suburbs with his wife, two kids and a new Volvo station wagon with a gate in the back so they can bring Daisy, their yellow Labrador, to the weekend house.

Burroughs is that guy who, despite all the good things in his present life, cannot help but bring up his football glory days at every opportunity. In the beginning, his friends and family are amused. The stories are told with a wit and exuberance that makes them wholly enjoyable.

But, after a few dinner parties and backyard barbeques, the charm begins to wear. Weekend guests on their way to the lake house wonder how long it will take before the subject comes up. What was once entertaining has now become self-indulgent. The stories that held everyone's attention are now social landmines.

Augusten Burroughs is that guy, except his glory days are not marked in yards and touchdowns but by empty scotch bottles and his mother's psychotic episodes.

It goes without saying that Burroughs is a clever and, one might even say, charming writer. After all, he managed to transform his troubling childhood and alcoholic adulthood into two significant and engaging memoirs, Running with Scissors and Dry.

In both, Burroughs told stories that readers found honest and stunning. Unafraid of the bitter details, rich in the texture of precise memory, they were awful in their graphic physical and emotional violence and hysterically funny in their tone and casual voice. Burroughs' work in these books was the literary starting gun for a fearless new kind of memoir.

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Possible Side Effects

Running with Scissors: A Memoir

Dry: A Memoir

But with Possible Side Effects, his latest collection, a touch of desperation comes through. Yes, Burroughs' writing is as funny and charming as ever, but there are also those moments when the joke or moment of revelation seems forced. The readers who want to give themselves over to the rhythm of the author's language are interrupted by the nagging thought, ''Didn't I already hear this story?''

The essays in Possible Side Effects shine when Burroughs trusts what he has to say. ''Pest Control,'' ''The Georgia Thumper'' and ''The Sacred Cow'' are, quite simply, laugh-out-loud funny. ''Little Crucifixions,'' about the author's childhood relationship with, of all people, his dermatologist, is quite possibly the tenderest and, in his own fashion, most touching piece that Burroughs has ever written. There is a freshness to these essays, not because they abandon the gallows humor that is Burroughs' sometimes mean-spirited signature, but because they mine new ground. We are not sent back to watch a young Augusten manipulate his psychologically unbalanced mother as in ''Fetch.'' We are not asked to revisit the days at the height of his alcoholism where he was living in an apartment whose squalor now seems to defy reality (''Kitty, Kitty'' and ''Locked Out''). These fresher essays have the feel of new ideas and new thoughts. They are the work of a writer who is continuing to grow and explore.

Unfortunately, there is not enough of this kind of writing to allow Possible Side Effects to thrive as a collection. Burroughs' skill as a writer is overshadowed by his reluctance to allow his readers to stray too far from the foundation his previous books have already set: Do not forget that I am an alcoholic. Do not forget that my mother was unbalanced.

True, this suggestion may seem a bit harsh when discussing a writer who has built his career on first-person essays and memoirs, but Burroughs has proven his ability to write wonderful work that successfully stands on its own. It's not that Burroughs should forget where he's been -- he might just want to remember that some of his readers are waiting to see where he wants to go.