In the aptly titled first of his memoir trilogy, Augusten Burroughs takes the reader down the rabbit hole of his youth. Set in rural Massachusetts in the 1970s, young Burroughs struggles with the deterioration of his parents’ marriage and the larger familial dysfunction this invites. He must turn inwards and master the art of self-discovery in order to fill his days, which he does while honing his own personal style and sense of fashion. As these quirks emerge in the early chapters, Burroughs seeks not to hide them from the reader, but places them on a pedestal, as if to air everything out, in a break from the traditional memoir, chock full of explanations for less than perfect behaviour. When Burroughs accompanies his parents to their psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, a bond is formed, which is a platform for an entirely new avenue of adventures in the teenager’s life. After his parents divorce, Burroughs is shipped off to live with Dr. Finch and his less than traditional family, a major turning point in his life. This presents new hurdles and added levels of oddity for the young and impressionable Augusten. With little formal education and no adult impetus to attend school, Burroughs becomes a creature of his surroundings and succumbs to some of the outlandish happenings within the Finch household, from “Bible-dips” to non-sanctioned home renovations, through to toilet bowl life interpretations . Left there to integrate and eventually becoming legal enveloped into the family, Burroughs must struggle to find himself again, while wrestling with the behaviours of those around him. Powerful in its delivery with a sense of dry wit that will keep the reader from lamenting the situation too forcefully, Burroughs begins spinning the complex narrative of his life and the situations that shaped him in adulthood.
Being used to the more formal memoir reading in the past, I struggled in the early chapters to grasp the Burroughs narrative. Fragmented and full of editorializing, I asked myself if this was a story or a smattering of ideas sewn together with the odd piece of properly-placed punctuation. However, after reorganizing my mind, I could better adapt to the writing style, a non-fiction Stephen King of sorts, allowing absorption of the book’s crux. While it tells horror stories of what happened to a young boy who was shipped off when his mother felt he was too much of a burden for her fragile state of mine, Burroughs offers a softer side to these happenings in a collection of vignettes that create a patchwork quilt of a young life, one event building off another. The reader may cringe or even wonder if this is a piece of fiction, but when fully digested, this memoir can be appreciated as truth, told through the prism of a young boy’s recollections. No fiction writer could come up with so many tales and place them at the feet of a single boy in such vivid fashion. Burroughs has the ability to pull the reader in a number of directions and leaves nothing as too personal or private. He fears no judgement and can sometimes indulge in self-mockery as he trots through the shards of his memory bank, laying the groundwork for the following two parts, sure to use this piece as a strong foundation. Not for the straight-laced memoir reader, but ideal for those who want to be shocked, surprised, and especially astounded. Burroughs knows how to sell himself, however the reader wants to interpret it.
A special thank you to Rae Eddy, who recommended I step well beyond my comfort level in trying this book. She sought to introduce me to not only a new author, but a new way of looking at life and enjoying it for all it has to offer. You may have created a new Augusten Burroughs fan with your gentle nudging. Keep it up for the long haul we have ahead of us!
Kudos, Mr. Burroughs for this wonderful first of three memoirs. I am eager to see how things develop in DRY, the next book on my list.