Book Review: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press; First Edition edition (April 29, 2008)
ISBN # 0312342020
256 pages
Author Website

My Grade: B+

Plot / Premise

I’ve decided to copy and paste the plot summary from the below source. I always feel like I don’t do plot summaries justice and I’m only regurgitating what other people have said and … okay, fine. I’m lazy. I’d rather concentrate on character development and writing style.

From Amazon

A searing, emotional portrait of a son who wants nothing more than the love his father will not grant him, Burroughs’s latest memoir (after 2004’s Dry) is indeed powerful. Absent is the wry humor of Running with Scissors and the absurd poignancy of Burroughs’s years living with his mother’s Svengali-like psychiatrist. Instead, Burroughs focuses on the years he lived both in awe and fear of his philosophy professor father in Amherst, Mass. Despite frequent trips with his mother to escape his father’s alcoholic rages, Burroughs was determined to win his father’s affection, secretly touching the man’s wallet and cigarettes and even going so far as to make a surrogate dad with pillows and discarded clothing. Only after his father’s neglect—or cruelty—leads to the death of Burroughs’s beloved guinea pig during one of the family’s many separations does the son turn against the father. Avoiding self-pity, Burroughs paints his father with unwavering honesty, forcing the reader to confront, as he did, a man who even on his deathbed, refused his son a hint of affection.

So. I’m not crazy about autobiographies. And it’s doubly hard to critique autobiographies because how can you critique a person’s life? And let’s not forget that even though autobiographies are about the author’s life, how much of the memoir has been exaggerated?

In other words, take autobiographies with a grain of salt. A LARGE grain of salt. Because you really just never know how much is truth and how much truth has been stretched.

Remember the whole Frey fiasco? I think that episode turned a lot of people off autobiographies, myself included.

At any rate, I saw this book at the book fair and I picked it up. And I read the blurb. And I admit, I was intrigued. And it was mainly because I read Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors” in college. It was a literature class and we were instructed to read an autobiography and give an oral report on it. I thought the cover of Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors” was interesting and after delving into the book, I couldn’t put it down. And then I wish I had never picked it up.

This man has had a very disturbing life (if what he writes is indeed true. I can’t help it, I’m a cynic). He was abused, but not so much physically (though there were moments), but rather emotionally. In fact, it’s safe to say that I’m rather surprised Burroughs’ is still with us today because no human being should ever have to live with two parents who were as crazy as Burroughs’ parents.

Overall Thoughts

I’m pretty sure I frowned throughout this whole book. In fact, I caught myself frowning quite a few times and Kevin even commented on my expression at times.

My emotions ran the gamut: anger, frustration, horror, disbelief, sadness … and there might have even been a moment when I would have gladly strangled Burroughs’ father for being such a poor excuse of a human being.

But even though the events were horrifying, and I certainly felt sympathetic toward Burroughs’, I have to admit, Burroughs did an excellent job of balancing the events with how he reacted to the events. His memoirs could have easily morphed into a pity fest for himself, but you can tell, by the tone of his story, that the man has true strength. Through all of his terrible ordeals, he still manages to hang on to a shred of dignity, strength and even humor.

Burroughs’ has a way with words. His prose is magical and it’s at once both lyrical and practical. He was thinking as a child when he wrote this, so a lot of his descriptions was like listening to a child talk. Though some people criticized him for that, I think that was his intention when he wrote this book – he’s telling the story of his childhood, therefore, he’s keeping his writing at a childlike level. His writing is innocent and his childish thoughts are direct and almost endearing as he walks us through his life and I often caught myself grinning in places because of Burroughs’ young imagination and how he would explain, or justify, the horrific activities around him.

I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style. Not to mention, his mental strength of character.

I also admire the man’s determination to make something of himself even though his father did his best to make him feel less than a human being.

Responding to Negative Reviews

Is this book an example of “Creative Nonfiction?”

The thing I find most disturbing about this ‘memoir’ is that I saw Mr. Burroughs at a book reading when Magical Thinking was released and he spoke about his father and how they had reconciled. During the Q&A, an audience member asked what he thought of “creative nonfiction” writers like David Sadaris (a writer who admits to changing his stories based on audience reactions at readings) and Mr. Burroughs said he had no problem with either the term or concept as long as the book is entertaining.

Yes actually, that’s exactly what this book is. In fact, I would even go so far out on a limb to say that a lot of autobiographies could be classified as “creative nonfiction.” Autobiographies are like the movies that have “based on a true story” at the very beginning. There’s a kernel of truth in the story, but it’s been embellished to make it more dramatic and/or more interesting.

It just comes with the territory. I think people who take autobiographies so seriously are honestly setting themselves up for disappointment.

Grain of salt, people.

Does this guy really think he was abused? I felt more compassion for his father who seemed to suffer from not one but two crippling diseases, as well as being “blessed” with a narcissistic psychotic wife. (Think that would make one tend to be a little preoccupied?) Yet in recounting all the horrors his father endured, all this author can seem to feel is pity for himself. Except for enlightening the reader as to what a self absorbed whiner considers to be “abuse,” this book is a waste of time and money.

Actually, I sort of agree with this one. Burroughs’ father obviously had health issues, which isn’t an excuse to neglect your children, but it’s definitely a factor. It sounds like Burroughs’ father reached a point where the pain just sort of ruled his life and he went crazy trying to manage it. He took his frustrations/pain out on Burroughs’ because he was an easy target. I’m not excusing the father’s abusive, cruel behavior, but there is definitely a flip side to this story, too. Children are annoying under the best of circumstances, they are nearly intolerable when one is in constant physical pain.

I can’t figure out why A.B. wrote this book. It was painful to read. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be getting out of this book; there is no life lesson, nothing entertaining, nothing compelling. He actually pulled off an amazing feat: He wrote a book that is harrowing and boring at the same time. Furthermore, because he writes about his father as a shadowy, mysterious figure, I never got a real sense of who (or what) his father was. This is just a series of painful stories about a horrible, abusive father. I didn’t get it.

There were several negative reviews along this vein: “I didn’t get it,” “not very compelling,” “boring,” “self-indulgent” (I’m pretty sure self-indulgent is the definition of an autobiography, duh).

I guess the father wasn’t abusive ENOUGH for these people. I find that a bit disturbing, actually.

At any rate, they’re missing the point – the “life lesson” in this book is that parents need to be more aware of how they treat their children. Children are not pets, they’re people. They have thoughts, feelings and how they’re interacted with determines their personalities. Parents are responsible for shaping their childrens’ personalities and I think too often, parents forget that fact. Children are not disposable, they are not made to sit in a corner and be ignored. If people don’t want to sacrifice themselves and their time, they shouldn’t have children.

That’s right, I said it.

Burroughs’ father was written as a shadowy figure in this story because that’s what he was to Burroughs. This reviewer never got a real sense of who his father was because Burroughs never got a real sense of him either. He wrote this story from the point of view of a child – as HIMSELF as a child. It would be ridiculous to expect him to have any sort of insight into what sort of man his father was at that young age. The fact that Burroughs’ father remains a mysterious character even into his adulthood speaks volumes – HE NEVER KNEW THE MAN.

Burroughs’ memoirs are depressing but thought provoking. They really make you appreciate a happy childhood and they’re a lesson on what NOT to do when you’re a parent.


By the way, I have this book for sale in my book store if you would like to purchase it. It’s only been read once and is in excellent condition.

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Karen

Hi! My day job is a CMA in neurosurgery.. I'm a mom to two twenty-something sons. I've been married to the same man for 26 years. I have a lot to say about nothing. Lucky you.