Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“Author Visit: Augusten Burroughs”

by Patrick Stephenson,
auctorial optician

WRITE ON RADIO // When Augusten Burroughs blinks—in between words from the book he’s reading aloud, during the pause between an audience question and his answer—his face twitches. Blinking jolts invisible energy into his face, tilts his head back slightly while his eyes close, and finally, thrusts his head back to its origin point pre-pause, whereat Burroughs is Augustenready to answer or keep reading. Discreet but noticeable, this.

I’m watching from behind a large crowd in St. Paul’s Bound to Be Read, an excellent, comforting indie that fills the metaphorical space left by The Ruminator’s summer closure, and I’m trying to figure out why his face is so affected by the movement of his eyelids. This isn’t a reflection of the quality of his work or his reading. I’m easily distracted, is all. Is he nervous? It doesn’t seem that way.

“Put up those little hands!” he says, when he’s finished reading a “non-dirty” selection from Magical Thinking, his just released St. Martin’s Press essay collection. Burroughs seems relaxed and we, the crowd, laugh. Is it something he can’t control? In Magical Thinking, which is already on the New York Times Bestseller list, Burroughs recounts his education in “The Barbizon School of Modeling,” from which he received a chance to perform in a “fashion show at JC Penney in Agawam,” and the certainty that he would some day be a famous male model.

“The Barbizon School was located in a strip mall in Springfield, Massachusetts,” Burroughs writes, “tucked between a Radio Shack and a clothing store for plus-size women. When you stepped through those doors, you left the world of weak chins and superfluous hair behind.” Between ’80s gadgets and too-big clothes, Burroughs learned “complete control of [his] facial expressions,” to the extent that, “more than two decades later, when I laugh people say it looks fake. Which it is.” If Burroughs can control his facial output so completely, why the strange blinks? Are they a signal meant for decoding, that only a special few will see?

What’s the message?

Burroughs’ eye Morse symbolizes our inability to reach this person, despite the three books taken directly from his life. Even if Burroughs’ work makes him out to be a bare-all-secrets memoirist, he is still as unknowable as every other one of us Whitmanian messes of contradictions and mysteries. Regarding Running With Scissors, a memoir of his childhood, Burroughs confirms my assumption: “Scissors was just the tip of the iceberg.” All is revealed to me in a literal eye blink. A blink and a twitch. A twitch and a blink. A blink, a twitch, a blink blink twitch.

Burroughs’ reading, on Saturday, Oct 23, 2004 at 2:00pm, during an archetypal, orange-leaved fall day, proceeds according to the traditional format: an author is introduced by Bound to Be Read’s event coordinator (on whom I’m quickly developing a crush), the author steps up to “meet” his/her audience, introduces his/her work with a wit that charms the crowd and makes everyone giggle, and then recites a representative—in this case “non-dirty”—portion of his/her work. The “dirty” stuff Burroughs neglects to read, but teases us with, is a story about his date with “Raoul,” and an encounter with Raoul’s “micro-penis.”

To show he’s reluctant to read this, Burroughs sweeps his hand across my section of the crowd, jokes there are too many kids here, seems to look directly at me. I feel child-like, wide-eyed. Only later do I realize that I was standing near the children’s section. Such is my self-centrism. Introductions are overcome, and Burroughs reads from “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch,” the penultimate story in his collection, which describes his attempts with his partner Dennis to purchase a prefabricated log cabin, around which Burroughs wanted to erect an electrified fence.

The story is funny, as most of Burroughs’ work is, but I have trouble laughing. My focus is less on the reading and more on my standing instead of sitting. This crowd is large, moreso than last week’s Susan Orlean reading, and composed primarily of middle-aged women who laugh and laugh and laugh. My legs hurt and I hate them for having seats. Why not me? Why can’t I have a seat instead of the sycophantic dorks in the front row who laugh too loudly when Augusten makes a funny. Sycophants piss me off.

Questions post-reading are quietly spoken. From where I stand behind the crowd, I strain to hear and turn to the people around me to ask if anyone can, unlike me, hear. According to his answers, Burroughs realized he was a writer when he wrote the bulk of his first novel Sellevision in a week. The first line made him laugh, and although unsure of where to go and how to end, he had to continue. Chronologically, this jag occurred after the events Burroughs describes in Dry, the memoir he wrote concerning his detoxification in a Minnesotan clinic. The second questioner asks about Burroughs’ sobriety. Formerly an alcoholic, Burroughs has now been sober for six years.

Afterward, a friend tells me it was odd seeing Burroughs and realizing, for the first time, that even though memoirs are apparently true, and even though Burroughs confirms that everything and everyone, except for a composite character in Dry really happened and really existed, they seemed more like characters and situations in a novel rather than like actual people and real-world events. “It’s amazing,” she says. “Some people have such unique lives.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my copies of Burrough’s books before the reading, so I’m unable to give him a novel to sign, but I end up buying a hardcover copy of Magical Thinking later on, in a move I’m already sure I won’t regret. The collection is an exemplar of his cynical, Sedaris-esque style (the collection’s stories are taken from daily life, are embarrassing and self-deprecating, and both Burroughs and Sedaris are, as one reviewer describes it, “enthusiastically gay”).

This, unlike Burroughs’ previous two non-fiction works, can be consumed out of order. He writes in a style informed by his years in advertising: an emphasis on infusing as much information as he can into as tiny a space as he can. His prose is concise and unfilled with verbal flourishes. It flows so easily that the form doesn’t distract, or detract, from the book’s stories.

The reading ends too quickly, 45 minutes after it began. As I’ve said, I don’t have anything for him to sign, so I make for the exit, and think about shouting, “Bye Augusten!” as I leave, but that would be odd and disturbing, and, as testified by those full-face blinks, I don’t know him well enough to call him Augusten (Burroughs). Oh well. Blink twitch blink blink.

— P.S., for Write On Radio, October 2004

Written by patiomensch

March 2, 2007 at 6:29 pm

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