Normally, I don’t spoil a good read by looking up reviews of books that I want to read, but in the case of Lust and Wonder: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs, I did. Not surprisingly the reviews come in two flavors–favorable and not favorable. The overwhelmingly positive reviews likely come from people who are just diving into Burroughs’ work and superfans. Those who didn’t review the new memoir kindly probably know too much about Burroughs and feel as though there’s not much mystery left. Burroughs’ similarly reviews his relationships in Lust and Wonder.
Burroughs is newish to me. Working in the book industry, you can’t avoid some level of knowledge about his writing. Also, my brother’s theatre troupe in New Orleans shares the name of Burroughs’ first memoir, Running with Scissors. To prep for reviewing Lust and Wonder (I’m a professional, people!), I read Dry and Look Me In the Eye. Dry is Burroughs’ memoir about getting sober and anything about alcoholism feels like home to me. Look Me In the Eye is the memoir of Burroughs’ brother, John Elder Robison. I wanted to hear Robison’s story to get an outsider’s insider view of Burroughs, but Robison’s story of living with undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome and making explosive guitars for Ace Frehley is way more interesting than the fact that his brother is interesting. Storytelling is clearly a family talent.
Augusten Burroughs focuses on three romantic tales in Lust and Wonder: A Memoir, four if you count his love of gem stones. The book opens with Burroughs breaking the sobriety he fought for in Dry while on a date. Readers want happiness for Burroughs, but alcoholism takes what it wants. Burroughs’ treatment of the first two relationships follows a predictable arc. Burroughs’ writing about these experiences is tight, measured and controlled, but his writing about the third relationship is looser, more joyful and messy. I do not think this is intentional, but it lends itself to a larger framework for thinking about this memoir.
Burroughs calls himself a damaged child who believes the worst other people say. Consequently, he tends to be a homebody when he isn’t drinking. Is that control, introspection and introversion a protective act? Perhaps. The tendency does not play well in his relationships. Burroughs seems to work hard to maintain relationships that neither party is all that interested in maintaining. Rather than seeking chemistry, he seeks security with his boyfriends.
Some of his behaviors seem like those employed by people who love alcoholics, like the desire for safety, rather than the behaviors of an alcoholic. He writes, “Normal people who weren’t raised by mentally ill goats probably took the feeling of safety for granted.” He continues, this time speaking of his experience in a healthy relationship, “feeling safe felt almost like drinking.” Accordingly, I like to think that Burroughs writes with strict control to emphasize his insecurity, as he does when describing the first two relationships of this memoir in which he’s always questioning his position. Then he allows himself freedom in the relationship where he feels safe. Or maybe the difference in writing is due to the fact that I got an advance readers copy (with matching matches!) and the final few pieces hadn’t been screwed in yet.
For me, the moments he discusses his struggle with addiction are stronger than those when he discusses lust and wonder. I understand how ordinary tasks can overwhelm those with compromised coping skills. I understand how a person would want the addiction that distances one from responsibility and emotional investment. (“The horrible thing about being sober is you lose your excuse for being so fucked up.”)
Much of what that people love Burroughs for is in Lust and Wonder. For example, he writes of trying to find a home for Sellevision, “‘[My Agent] says he knows just the right publisher,’ I moaned to [Molly], ‘and now I’m pretty sure it’s Kinko’s.'” This type of self-deprecative insecurity feels all too real to most of us, but it also has comedic components so that those feelings don’t overwhelm us.