A kinder, gentler Burroughs: still bizarre, still entertaining

Memoirist recounts bouts with guilt, alcoholism, hypochondria

Review Essays


Possible Side Effects

Augusten Burroughs

St. Martin's Press / 304 pages / $23.95

Will the real Augusten Burroughs please stand up? In Running With Scissors, his best-selling memoir, Burroughs was a 13-year-old imp of the perverse in a gallery of grotesques, including his psychotic, self-absorbed, aspiring-poet mother; his father, who preferred to sit alone in the dark; and the more than slightly cracked psychiatrist who became his guardian. Dr. Finch, in turn, became his guide to even more of the freakish, introducing him to his Masturbatorium, his Purina Dog Chow Munching mate, a motley crew of mistresses, and his daughters, April, "the bible-dipper," and Natalie, whose principal skills were oral sex and restraining patients.

In Burroughs' most recent collection of essays about his bizarre life, Possible Side Effects, the 40-something author still claims that envy, greed and rage are his three default emotions. But he seems less "mean-brained" - and his humor is much less twisted. A recovering alcoholic, he's learned to make love, not Dewar's. Life with his partner, Dennis Pilsits, seems pretty normal and nice.

And now, it turns out, Burroughs' characters, including himself, may be, well, characters. His vivid vignettes in Possible Side Effects - like the one about "Druggy Debbie" pressing hard-core pornographic photographs, mounted on foam boards, against a window in her 1972 Chrysler, with warnings to reckless drivers to stop passing on the right - may be the products of his vivid imagination. To make sure Burroughs isn't "Freyed" in the storm that has followed the revelations about the "memoir" A Million Little Pieces, the publishers of Possible Side Effects hastily inserted an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book: "Some of the events happened as related, others were expanded and changed." (It's worth noting that allegations have arisen about Burroughs mixing fact and fiction in Scissors.)

Anyway, the Augusten Burroughs of Possible Side Effects is less likely to erupt in anger. But he's discovered 57 varieties of anxiety. Some of them are funny. As a kid, he was so terrified of the long arm of the law, he did not remove the tags from his pillows. As an adult, he checks his pockets every four minutes to verify that his keys and wallet are still there.

Most of all, he worries that his body is breaking down. Possible Side Effects is awash in broken teeth, nosebleeds and heart palpitations. Burroughs suspects that if he reads Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, he too will get cancer of the lower jaw. Because he has suffered all his life from dry and cracked skin, Burroughs has "angst hands." At book-signings, he leaves a trail of blood on the title page. He sleeps with cotton gloves slipped over heavily moisturized fingers - and wakes up with clenched fists "chewed raw in the night by my own mind. Another part of me that will never heal, no matter what I do."

Along with anxiety comes guilt. When a locksmith glimpses two years of accumulated debris, including decayed food, on the floor of his apartment, Burroughs is mortified. His immediate response, as he contemplates what the workmen didn't see - H&R Block tax documents in the oven and underwear in the refrigerator - is to reach for a bottle of scotch. The more lasting side effect of lost keys is a decision to get sober - and start writing. Having broken through drinking's deadbolt lock on his emotional and creative life, he begins to get the feeling he is home.

The sizable superego of this Burroughs keeps him from acting out his freaky fantasies. As he observes visits from "Penis Man" to "Saturday Susan" through his apartment window, he thinks about leaving a note, ostensibly from the adulterer: "I need seven days of you. Marry me." But he doesn't. He paints stripes on the neighbor's dog but makes sure the chemicals will wash off. Burroughs is not yet completely cured. He wishes John Updike dead, so that he can make a killing on the first editions he has bought on spec. And, he steals a Harvard T-shirt from an unsuspecting hotel guest, telling himself he was meant to have it - and the becrimsoned owner "didn't need to be showing off."

A former advertising man, Burroughs knows how to reach an audience. Edgy at the edges but soft in the center, Possible Side Effects connects to neurotic midlifers, slightly off-kilter, kidless, dog-doting and solitary souls. They might welcome another book by Burroughs: the true story of the anguished life of a fiction writer trapped in the career of a memoirist.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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