A Wolf at the table

I've finished reading Augusten Burroughs' A wolf at the table. This is his most recent release, of 2008, barring the book he's about to release and tour any day now. I was impressed with how well Augusten's writing has evolved since his first memoir, Running with Scissors. The writing is richer, more solid and vivid. It proves that writing does improve with practice, over time. There's hope for me still.

A wolf at the table is a subtly menacing account of Augusten's relationship (or non-relationship to be more apt) with his cold-hearted, sinister father. The memoir is mostly set during Augusten's childhood days where he and his parents and older brother were living in Western Massechusetts, at the outskirts of the town in a house surrounded by thick, tall pine trees. The sun rarely enveloped the house. The relative nature of the shrouding out of sunlight and the lack of love in the household is not lost on the reader, nor on Augusten himself.

While I was reading A wolf at the table I tallied a mind count as to who was the harder father, Augusten's or mine. I have to concede that it has to be Augusten's. My father, for all of his hardness and gruffness, had a good heart. Augusten's dad was sociopathic, and questionably psychopathic. The author doesn't make a decision either way, but the clues presented by Augusten reveal that the act of murder was a consideration that sped through the mind of his father. As an adult, Augusten tested his dad's intentions by joking to him on the phone that he could kill his mother as she walked alone at the bridge at night. His dad paused, breathing heavily, to finally speak and hypothesise that with all the buildings and windows surrounding the bridge - he instantly revealed the exact number of windows and buildings surrounding the bridge - the chance of getting caught in the act was too great. This confirmed Augusten's worst fears, and along with other similar anecdotes, leaves the reader wondering as to his father's true intentions. He was a man, after all, who wore a mask in his outside life as philosophy professor; shedding that mask to reveal a pained, cold, withdrawn alcoholic at home.

My dad was the gruffest man I ever knew. For all of these autobios where the authors confess to how terrible their father is (and I'm not about to say that my dad was terrible, he wasn't), there are times when these authors revealed momentary lapses of banter with their dads. Augusten's dad, for instance, would be asked inquisitive questions multiple times by the young son before losing his patience. My dad would have just belted out "Silencio" in his gruff, loud voice. That always shut me up. Sting's autobiography has him whinging about his dad not acknowledging him or complimenting him. Big deal. Sting's dad was quite a gentle man in comparison, sometimes laughing at or along with his son. My dad never did that with me, never had a conversation with me as a one-on-one conversation. It was weird. Any long conversation with my dad was him having a long spiel about the life led long ago in Cinquefronde, invariably told during the late of night after a long session at the pub.

When he came home from work, and before he went off to the pub, we would watch cartoons together. In the evening, forget it. The man was sozzled like soaked sausage and that was the end of that. Depression and maudlin self-loathing seeped through the pores of his skin and veiled themselves in and throughout the walls and rooms of the house. The house become damper, colder, and darker despite the outside dryness, or heat, or light. Night after night, every night and day.

Yet unlike Augusten's parents, mine never fought. That's because my mum was obsequient to the nth degree, doing everything right to please him and to avoid arguments. So they never argued. But it was an incredibly weird, strange situation where nothing was said yet I could hear psychic screaming to the ends of the earth.

My dad was naturally very social and everyone liked him. He always had loads of friends. Inside the house it was like we were all strangers. Outside he was everybody's mate. And he was good about me. He was proud of me, he liked my character, he loved me. He would call me "champien" to other people. He'd had stuff to drink, of course; "champien" being a verbal twist on "champion". He could still be a prick, and be brutish, though those occasions were few and far between.

I have a sister and brother who are a generation older than me. My sister is 16 years older and my brother 11 years. My brother, in particular, copped a lot of nastiness from my dad. Dad was often brutish, aggressive, dismissive and a downright prick to my brother. To this day my brother asks me why he got picked on and not me. I guess there can be no answer to that, it's a chicken-and-egg thing. Was my brother picked on because he was the first-born son, or was he picked on because there was an innate personality clash between the two males. I, for example, was a quieter and patient counterpoint to my dad so somehow I never ticked him off in the way my brother did. In any case, I was spared first-hand viciousness from my dad (in later years, on occasions, I copped it from my bro funnily enough); instead I choked on the toxic pungency of psychic sludge. I'm almost 40 and, most thankfully, I'm rid of most if not all of that creepy stuff.

It's with my sister, and not my brother, that I share long discussions about the family and mum & dad and the dynamics we shared and the strangeness and awfullness of our upbringings.

Augusten is a brave writer. He reveals everything about himself, so much so that instead of us being averse to his candidness, we warm to it, mirroring parts of ourselves that we ordinarily would never reveal.

Augusten admits to the fantasy of killing his dad at Martha's Vineyard. (The author reveals in the novel that his dad had threatened once to kill him, during a phone call). Augusten imagined squatting on his backside behind his dad who was standing on the clifftop, using his feet to push forward behind his dad's kneecaps so that the father would lose his balance, to go tumbling down the cliff and land in the shape of a horseshoe some 300 metres below. Oh what a relief, the boy would feel. I remember sometime around 1990 or 1991 I was playing the Doors loudly in my room. 'The End' came on and I was enjoying it. My parents were outside in the back garden doing stuff, like fusty magpies. When Morrison's bit came on about "father...I want to kill you" I felt it, and in an insane, evil moment, I lived it. I peered outside my window onto the back garden below...

Within a year or two, my dad was dead.

I feel no guilt for this, not anymore. Life is life. I've served the penance, before, and after. It's over. He's been gone for 17 years now. How time flies. In 17 years time I'll be 56. Who knows where you, we, me, will be then. We may have fried in a post-nuclear apocolypse by that point.

Augusten lived with the threat of a strange man who played sinister mind-fucking games with the kid every day. His dad portended to look after Augusten's pets but instead he tortured them with slow, gruesome deaths whenever he and his mom were out of town. Either that, or he trained the dog to be the servant to he and he alone, so that the presence of his once friend Augusten and his mom were met with menacing, hair-raising grizzles.

His dad demonstrated no love toward the boy, ever. As adults Augusten would call his dad boasting of his career acheivements, the size of his paypacket, where he's travelled for work. Dad was as disinterested than ever, always calling off the phone conversation by saying how expensive long-distance calls are. Augusten always called his dad, it was never the other way around. In Dry, Augusten recounts talking to his dad on the phone and having a flashback of his dad stubbing a cigarette butt on his son's forehead. My dad would never have done that to me, not in a hundred years. Having said that, my old man had no tolerance for pets, especially dogs, so we never grew up with pets. Yet when we were landed with a cat in 1982 my dad was ok with it. It lived oustide and typically, my dad only gruffly acknowledged its existence, but secretly probably liked it.

My Italianness is a joke. Very little, if any, of my upbringing had the hallmarks of Italianism within it. My dad played the role of a toughened Aussie battler. He had the job for it, and the lifestyle. It is this, rather than my home life, that has affected me most of all. It's as if I carry a so-called chip-on-my-shoulder about the whole thing, as if we were nothings, just renegade lower-middle class battlers. I've continued my life by straddling fences. I work hard, when I have to, and I enjoy it. But I certainly haven't taken on manual labour as an occupation. As far as being in the workforce goes I've decided that I do not want the big hours. 35 hours per week in a nice library is more than adequate, and very fine I must say. And I don't care about big money either. My dad didn't give a fuck, so why then should I?

My dad wanted to be an opera singer but this of course was crushed out of him by his abusive father down in the confines of Calabria in southern Italy. People talk about their parents doing this, what they've been, where they've worked what they've done. I've got nothing to say, other than my dad had the spirit of Beethoven who never had a chance to reveal that. So he just put the finger up and worked hard in some crappy brickyard to make some cunt rich, all the while drowning and dampening his spirit and fire with beer, amber fluid.

I work in a good place with great people. But sometimes I glance over the fence from my performing arts college standpoint, and all my muso/writer/art friends, and gaze at the world of financiers and real estate operators and decide I do not like it out there. Growing up in a moneyless environment has made me diffident and chiding of those who are out there for a quid and for a quid only. There's a part of me that continues to want to stick the finger up at a lot of people out there, but I don't need to because I don't associate with them. Suffice to say, I've saved some money now so I am richer than Roosevelt, it's been said.

Augusten finishes his fine memoir by zooming to the present day and relating a story of getting picked up at the airport in Boston to attend a book launch/talk. The man who picks him up diverts to a room near the bookstore to where graduation robes are held. The man's son is graduating from Med school the following week and is curious to see firsthand his robe with the engraved name on the breastplate. Augusten joins in and they are hunting for the robe. They couldn't find it and the man is conciliatory albeit a little deflated. As they leave the man continues to slide a couple of robes up and down the rack in a last hope to find the name of his son. Augusten cracks. His head's about to blow off. He is choking back his sobs. He's never encountered this, the love a man feels for his son, ever. He felt it for the first time in his life then, and it floored him,

"...there was so much of it, so much love, so much adoration, so much of everything that is fine and good and wonderful and right with the world inside this man that he could not contain it. The grief is crushing as we leave the room..."

I've had my epiphanies too. I was with a date at the Rose Bay hotel in 1999. We were discussing film and we came to talking about 'Star Wars'. I started relating the finale of 'Return of the Jedi', with Luke Skywalker sword-fighting the evil Darth Vader, until at the end, as Luke has Darth pinned on his knees, Darth unveils his mask to reveal that he, the evil one, is Luke Skywalker's father.

I was floored. I was a frigging mess.

I have psychically fought my dad with a sword. And my evil has won, to the detriment of his spirit, and mine too. I do not fight anymore. I am at peace with it all, and am proud of my dad, his strength, his inherent artistry and his passion, to which I've inherited much. I may have carried his coffin out of the church, happily dried-eyed, and shoved the coffin in the back of the hearse thinking good-riddance. I paid for my insolence. The next few years were not good for me. The karma is paid for and I can say to him now, thank you for your life, for my life, and that which you showed me, which was and is priceless, and very much. To be grateful for my life, for being here, and to be thankful for what I've got. For what is without, is within.

My dad, after all, would say to me in his gruff voice that if anyone gives me trouble, to let him know. Very few people gave me trouble so I never let him know. And if they did, I internalised it, held it in.

My dad is a viable living presence around me. He has been gone for 17 years in the flesh, but he has never left me, nor me him. Augusten's dad, fading away on his deathbed, turned away from his son. He had nothing to say to him. He said a few parting words to his brother, but none to his son, Augusten. Such was the nature of their relationship.

What I share with Augusten Burroughs are dads who we feared, and who gave us no true attention, no succour at all.

I recall this dream, a dream I had around the mid-90s some years after my dad's passing, that reverberated with me and is beyond forgetting:

My dad is sitting in his chair in the living room. He is tired, disheveled, utterly wasted and fragile. He has no fight left within him. He is virtually gone. I'm thinking of my car outside on the kerb. It's my car at the time, my little speedy red Barina. And I think of my dad's car parked on the other side of the road, facing south. It's a white car that's as old and unlooked-after and beaten about and as dishevelled as he is. My father croaks out some words to me, he doesn't look me in the eye. "You can take my car if you want". He sounds so utterly defeated, like he's given up on life, as if he used up all of his strength to muster these words, words that oozed out of a beaten, crushed soul.


Anonymous said…
hey Ross, It's actually 15 years, not 16 - at my age every year counts much as I wish it didn't. Yeah, and though our father was cruel and harsh to A, it was me he beat up and I was only five years old. Sure, he never touched me again but to this day, the scars bother me. What a family legacy we all three have - our Italian version of southern Gothic complete with the decaying and haunted pile. Sometimes I wonder how we turned out so well.
Love you little bro
Mike Wells said…
I enjoyed your review and liked how you weaved in bits about your relationship with your father. I just finished the same book on Oct. 3, and while it left me a touch melancholy, it also left me with hope.
Anonymous said…
Some men just arn't sepose to be fathers.Some perhaps should just stay single.I know my dad wasn't very communicative at all with any of us kids although he was never violent.My sister says that he never wanted kids.So maybe he should never have married my mum as she always wanted a family he was just as happy for things to remain the same...

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