Lust and Wonder
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin. 304 pp. $26.99
Reviewed by Aubrey Whelan
There are really only two reasons to write a memoir:
You have had an unusual life, and you have good reason to believe others will want to read about it.
You are living a mostly ordinary life, but you are prepared to write about it so beautifully the mundane becomes transcendent.
Augusten Burroughs started writing memoirs for the first reason. Now he is trying to write them for the second. This was a mistake.
Burroughs published his first memoir, Running With Scissors, in 2002 to almost instant acclaim. The book detailed his harrowing upbringing at the hands of his mother's psychiatrist, a madman with a chaotic, dysfunctional family. Burroughs' second memoir, Dry, published a year later, chronicled his struggle with alcoholism and was another best-seller.
Lust and Wonder, out this month, is billed as the conclusion to this trilogy, a chronicle of Burroughs' adventures on the dating scene after getting sober. In practice, it is a disjointed catalog of exactly how the author's former lovers have wronged him, laid out in excruciating detail, for nearly 300 pages.
The bulk of the book concerns Burroughs' former partner of nearly a decade, Dennis. Burroughs introduces their budding relationship in a few glowing but hurried paragraphs and proceeds to spend the next third of the book describing a slow-motion implosion.
Dennis' great crime was that he fell out of love with Burroughs early on in their relationship, but stayed, building a house and a life with the author. No small betrayal. But Burroughs is blessed with the gift of hindsight - perhaps too much. Every development in the relationship, good and bad, is tinged in Burroughs' writing with bitterness and regret, which is understandable. But, wrung out for maximum ennui and despair, Burroughs' portrayal of the relationship feels more like a retcon than a recollection.
When Dennis finally confesses he no longer loves Burroughs, the author is shocked and betrayed. The reader is not, because Dennis has been portrayed as so exaggeratedly grating for the last 100 pages or so it's hard to imagine him being in love with anyone.
Burroughs has always been an engaging writer, and Lust and Wonder is a quick read with a few lovely lines that recall his earlier work. In the last third of the book, he falls in love with his literary agent - now his husband - and his account of their wedding party is sweet and slight and delightful, as all the best weddings are.
Part of what made Burroughs' previous work a success was his acerbic wit, his talent for specific hilarious, and telling, insults that said as much about the author as they did about their subjects. Used in Running with Scissors, they punched up: heroic salvos from a desperate kid with only his wits at his disposal.
Monied, married, and matured, Burroughs hasn't lost that trademark snark. But in Lust and Wonder, he's directing it toward people who are just boring, or unattractive, or not right for him, or simply passing him on the street. It makes for a mean little book.
It's hard to fault a memoirist for mining his own life too heavily. Everything, after all, is copy, as another New Yorker of similar biting wit famously said. But Nora Ephron had a gift for making the mundane transcendent. Burroughs has managed to make the transcendent - lust and wonder, of all things! - mundane.