Running with Scissors
(St. Martin's Press)
Augusten Burroughs' childhood was more fucked-up than yours. This point is made over and over again in Running With Scissors, Burroughs' coming-of-age and coming-out memoir. And while it's true that stories of dysfunctional families make up the recent memoir craze, this is not another pretentious, dreary weeper. Burroughs' writing is wry, and his tale is bizarre enough to make this one-note work: Psychotic breaks, pedophilia, oral rape, dead pets, drug abuse, and psychiatric wards are played for black humor, seen through a teenager's perpetually rolled eyes.
First of all, there's his grandiose mother, who not only walks the fine line between confessional poet and raving lunatic--she merrily skips rope with it, bathing in broken glass for "artistic expression," eating scented candles and cigarette butts. For weeks at a time, she abandons her son to her unconventional (and somewhat unscrupulous) psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, who suggests Augusten fake a suicide attempt to get out of junior high, then retires to a closet called his "Masturbatorium" to jack off to pictures of Golda Meier in the Times.
Finch runs his squalid Victorian manse as a sort of free-range asylum for recalcitrant mental patients and his own eccentric brood. There, insanity is so commonplace it is simply ignored, stepped around, like the browning carcass of the Christmas tree in May. Under this more-or-less benign neglect, young Augusten weathers his mother's emotional storms, snacking on Purina Dog Chow ("It was surprisingly tasty. Nutty, slightly sweet with a satisfying crunch.") and Valium.
He also comes out and begins a Lolita-esque affair with the doctor's adopted son (and former patient), a jealous depressive 20 years his senior. Though Burroughs is barely 13, their enthusiastic sex (and creative use of Helene's Hair Cholesterol) is never seen as abuse--unless Augusten himself is the abuser, delighting in tormenting his obsessed lover.
Each of these characters deserves a novel of his or her own, and towards the end the book begins to feel a bit repetitive, limited by its single perspective. But it also captures perfectly the heady freedom of that moment in adolescence when you first realize your family embarrassments may be mined for comedy. Augusten Burroughs has a gift for social satire, and I'm sure he will be pulling gems of literary wit from his crazy childhood for years to come.