YOU BETTER NOT CRY, the latest collection of short stories from Augusten Burroughs, describes a whole life in seven Christmases—his tales of family dysfunction and personal careening are, at various times, snappy, powerful, and trivial. It's everything you would expect from a holiday release by the author of Running with Scissors, a fact that is both satisfying and disappointing, like waking up on Christmas morning and realizing that you have nothing to yearn for.
The snippets of memoir hop around Burroughs' childhood, in which everyone socializes as if at a cocktail party, to his early adulthood, when he spends a Christmas with homeless people, to his calmer, later years. Despite the thematic links, the stories are unique in their subjects, and there is a sparse, tucked-corner neatness to how he packages an autobiography in Yule-tides.
Burroughs' writing is uneven throughout, transitioning from funny and succinct to pushy and hyperbolic. The story "Why Do You Reward Me Thus?," about the aforementioned Christmas with the bums, is full of honesty, and one of the best. Others are weighed down with exaggerated metaphors to fill up pages. For example, he notes that having to learn the Pledge of Allegiance in school seems to us today like "forcing a child to drink the blood of a sacrificial goat or unfurl a Tabriz prayer rug and kneel barefoot on it while facing Mecca." In the duller patches, Burroughs loses the impish and cruel wit that established him, and instead just says the darndest things. (No, Augusten, Jesus and Santa are not the same person.)
For all of Burroughs' sacrilege, loneliness, and misanthropic tendencies, he never questions the wonder of Christmas. He loves tinsel and gingerbread and Santa, and the annual opportunity to stress-test his closest relationships, whether that means bargaining with his parents for a bar of gold or spending Christmas with no family at all. It's like dredging a string of lights from the closet to see how many still glow. Those looking for a more skeptical view of the holidays will be disappointed, but reminded at least of the joy in not having your wishes fulfilled.