Book: A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
Date Read: July 1 to 12, 2020
Rating: 4 (of 5) stars
A Wolf at the Table was the pick for July’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: a book voted on by Bookstagram. I wanted to choose two books that had some sort of similarity, and found an interesting pair: two memoirs written by brothers. Unfortunately for John Elder Robison, his younger brother won this one, receiving 100% of the 4 votes cast. I admit that I was hoping for a slightly better voter turnout, but I suppose I will take what I can get!
This is not my first read from Augusten Burroughs, although I believe it is the first time that I have written about him here. This book has been suggested to be a sort of prequel to his more popular Running with Scissors, which primarily focuses on his teenage years, when he was living with his mother’s psychiatrist. The bulk of A Wolf at the Table is about the time before his parents’ divorce, focusing specifically on his relationship with his father while growing up in a tumultuous household.
I think the first thing that needs to be said is that this book was not what I was expecting it to be. While both A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors deal with some heavy subject matter at times, this book was much darker and more serious than his debut work. While there is definitely some use of humor in places, we do not get the same level of wit or whimsical absurdity that I have come to expect from Burroughs. This may sound like a criticism, but I do not intend it to be. These are very different stories, and it makes sense that they need to be told differently. I was, however, taken a bit off guard.
Through the book, we get an in depth view of the relationship between Augusten and his father—or at least the view of this relationship from the perspective of the child. For the most part, I felt that the feelings portrayed were written realistically from the child’s perspective, which I think is impressive. We all have childhood memories and feelings associated with them, but it’s difficult to explain these as an adult in the same way that we felt them when we were children. There is so much conflict expressed here: the want of affection coupled with very real fear of a man that seems to be an enigma. Throughout, Burroughs references feelings of anger toward his father, along with his worry that these feelings are manifesting to turn him into his father. The final chapters of the book jump forward into adulthood, partially addressing the impact of his early relationship with his father on later experiences.
In the back of the edition that I have, there is a list of discussion questions. Usually I glance through things like this and move on, but one question here stood out to me. Could the “wolf” of the book’s title be read as a metaphor that extends beyond the father? Can memories become more real and terrifying than the incidents or people that inspire them? Coming from the perspective of a psychologist… Yes. Absolutely. Our memories are certainly a reflection of our experiences, but how we recall those experiences is a major part of what creates our reality. I think this dovetails nicely with one thing that always comes up in discussions of memoirs: accuracy.
This is a memoir written in the form of a novel; there are many conversations included, many of them occurring when the author was quite young. There are many places where he presumes the emotion in others. How much truth is there really in the details? To that, I would pose a counter question: How much does that matter? Regardless of the individual details, there are certain overarching patterns in behavior, clearly marking our subject as a victim of some type of abuse. If this is an accurate reflection of his memory, is the accuracy of each individual word important?
Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not like that man’s relationship with animals. Can I give no paws?”
Unread Shelf Progress for July
- Books Read: 2
- Books Acquired: 1
- Total Unread Books: 260