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Best of Portland 2009

Who gives a truth?

Augusten Burroughs and James Frey try to overcome authenticity scandals with grim new books
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  May 28, 2008

A Wolf At The Table: A Memoir Of My Father by Augusten Burroughs | St. Martin’s Press | 242 pages | $24.95 | reading 7 pm May 29 | Abromson Community Center, University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St, Portland | Free; required tickets available at the venue at noon May 29 | 207.774.0626

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey | Harper | 501 pages | $26.95

If a character in an Augusten Burroughs book were to pound his head into the wall, the author would evenly convey the circumstances that led him to decide to do that and then debate whether it was worthwhile.

If the same thing happened in a James Frey book, Frey would eschew the debate, describing instead where the blood sprays and how much it hurts and how much it’s necessary.

Both authors write largely about issues of addiction and abuse, but they couldn’t have more different styles. That each has just released his first book since becoming embroiled in authenticity scandals, and that both of these books are essentially horror stories, makes them surprising bedfellows: they’ve got some anger to unleash, but it’s unclear to whom its directed.

The authors both became major players in the literary world five years ago with very different memoirs. Frey’s 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces (Nan A. Talese), detailed his struggle to overcome drug addiction in harsh, unfettered terms; lauded for its visceral impact, the book slowly became a bestseller, but at the height of its success — when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her monthly Book Club, in 2005 — a laundry list of embellishments and inaccuracies in Frey’s account came to light. He was eviscerated by Winfrey on national television, and his reputation has yet to recover.

Burroughs’s first memoir, 2002’s Running With Scissors (Picador), was a near-simultaneous critical and popular hit. The book documented the dysfunctional childhood of the author — the adolescent years where he was sent to live with his mother’s cultish therapist — and Burroughs portrayed events as disturbing as molestation in an observant, wry, and sometimes fantastical tone. But Running With Scissors also became the object of scandal in 2005, when characters in Burroughs’s account sued him for defamation of character and invasion of privacy. The uproar was relatively minimal, though — the Burroughs suit was settled while the Frey scandal dominated the media cycle — and Burroughs has continued to plumb his exceptional past for best-selling memoirs.

For their latest books — Frey’s first novel, Bright Shiny Morning (Harper), and Burroughs’s latest memoir, A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father (St. Martin’s Press) — both authors attempt to put their skills to work in the realm of horror. Their books have similar arcs, beginning with a certain amount of naïve curiosity before tailspinning into hatred and violence. They differ the way the writers differ: Burroughs offers a considered, sometimes harrowing account of intimate psychological terror; Frey puts a large cast of characters through unforgiving physical abuse and doesn’t look back. While both works are interesting thematic departures for their respective authors, both feel oddly pointless.

Stylistically, the authors have nothing in common. Frey traffics in a unique form of realism. He doesn’t use quotation marks to indicate dialogue, often leaving the reader to guess who’s actually speaking. He almost never employs metaphor or reflective tactics; his is a narrative of the needs, pain, and action of his characters at that very moment: “Her hands are trembling, lips trembling, tears start coming she hates herself, hates herself” (page 155). Frey’s only true stylistic flourish is his stream-of-consciousness rhythm. His repeating phrases and minimal punctuation help the reader inhabit each character’s mindset in a manner the author thinks displays maximal, gritty reality.

As his great popularity would suggest, Burroughs’s style is more in line with the literary establishment. His tone, while dotted with hokey metaphors, is disarmingly matter-of-fact, giving a surreal, sometimes hilarious quality to the frequently alarming events he portrays. Burroughs excels at explaining his conflicted state of mind amid frantic surroundings, and his (until now) fantastical touch has charmed readers through a series of memoirs.

Won’t you be my neighbor?
Bright Shiny Morning may only end up a horror story because it doesn’t achieve its higher goals. Clearly designed to be a Great Los Angeles Novel, Frey follows four sets of characters through the City of Dreams: a megarich, closeted action star who falls in love with a new agent at his management firm; two dreamers who escape turbulent upbringings in the Midwest and arrive in LA with little but love and hope; a homeless man in Venice trying to help a young junkie set her life straight; and a young Mexican-American girl trying to contribute to her large family. Interspersed between these plotlines are sentence-long chapters that tell the story of Los Angeles’s growth, along with occasional sections about nameless denizens of the city.

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  Topics: Books , Augusten Burroughs, Book Reviews, Books,  More more >
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