Augusten Burroughs is, for better or worse, the poor man’s David Sedaris. The two men share much in common: a sexual orientation (gay), colorful families (which are borderline abusive) and an essentially dim view of human nature (countered by unapologetic vanity and self-absorption).
However, the similarities taper there. While Sedaris is a regular contributor to “The New Yorker,” Burroughs is buried deep amidst ads for cologne, cigars and penis enlargers in “Details.” Sedaris is practically his own industry — he appeals to a rare demographic that combines frat boys, English teachers and grandmas. Burroughs, on the other hand, is a misfit icon. His work remains darker and more distraught than that of Sedaris. But at its best, it is also more meaningful and memorable.
In his newest collection, “Magical Thinking” Burroughs continues to mine his desperate life and turns his coal-black existence into diamond-sharp essays. As described in his first two memoirs, “Running with Scissors” and “Dry,” Burroughs was an abused child and a reckless alcoholic. He spent the better part of his professional life working obsessively as an inconsiderate advertising executive. In other words, the man is an enormously stunted human being. Fortunately, as a writer, he has grown.
Thankfully, Burroughs’ sharp, honed voice prevents “Magical Thinking” from feeling recycled. These 27 “true stories” run the gamut — priests give blow jobs in one, Burroughs buys a puppy in the next — but the book’s real strength is Burroughs’ desert-dry wit. His plain, stoic style keeps the collection chugging along.
In a way, the book is the literary equivalent of popcorn. Like a bag of Pop-Secret, “Magical Thinking,” is a pleasant, airy snack. But it’s unlikely to last more than one sitting and will probably leave some readers unfulfilled. This is not entirely offensive — literature is meant to be entertaining, after all — but it does pose critical questions about the work of Burroughs and similar writers. Is this Smartfood or “literature lite”? Does something significant snarl behind all the bitter humor?
Judging by “Magical Thinking,” the answer would have to be both yes and no. Burroughs writes memoirs, and his screaming self-obsession creates quite a narrow scope. And while the book revolves around Burroughs, the earth revolves around the sun. When Burroughs chooses to acknowledge this fact and tackle truly important issues, he succeeds tremendously.
In “Puff Derby,” Burroughs’ interaction with Puff Daddy at the Kentucky Derby produces a subtle, scathing examination of race and class.
“We were dressed for comfort, with a nod to tradition,” he writes. “Puffy was dressed for tradition, with a nod to world domination. The ladies were dressed to impress and found themselves hopelessly in awe of a black man who had reinvented himself as the richest, whitest man at the Derby.”
This dissection of the American Dream, like everything else, returns to the author himself. As a gay Northerner at the Kentucky Derby, Burroughs sticks out like, well, a gay Northerner at the Kentucky Derby. But one look at Puff Daddy and he realizes, “I didn’t feel so out of place then.”
Burroughs writes equally well about death, which revisits his work regularly. This is, after all, a gay man who lived through the AIDS scare’s most intense period and an alcoholic who relapsed habitually and freebased crack. When Burroughs writes about death, his wit dominates. In “I Dated an Undertaker,” when his boyfriend brings him to see a refrigerator full of embalmed bodies, Burroughs jokes, “Normally, two boyfriends might ‘go downstairs to the refrigerator’ and grab a beer after sex. This refrigerator was not that kind of refrigerator.”
But faced with the body, Burroughs lapses into a tender profundity — warmth and empathy replace sarcasm and cynicism. “He was a very handsome, athletic man. He looked to be sleeping. I followed the contours of his face with my eyes,” Burroughs writes. “It felt wrong for me to see him like that. It felt like theft.” However, the moment, like the described corpse’s life, is ephemeral.
Indeed, the story continues and gaiety returns. But “I Dated an Undertaker” ends with the haunting, sinewy sentence: “We kissed for a long, hungry time.” Here his tone is elliptical and elegant. It is the refined voice of an experienced writer and suggests great future promise. Above all, it suggests gravity, which is rare in Burroughs’ writing, but an essential part of any “Magical Thinking.”