By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's Press, 268 pp., $23.95
By the age of 7, Augusten Burroughs was already earmarked for success but headed for disaster. He'd been specially picked from Mrs. Ames' penmanship class for a Tang Instant Breakfast Drink commercial, but he froze in front of the camera, too tongue-tied to utter his pivotal line: "Hey, Mark, where are you going?"
Burroughs was having trouble because he couldn't find his "character's own space within the context of the scene," and the commercial's director was no help at all. In fact, he was royally pissed after repeated takes: "What are you talking about, character? You're a kid in a school ... playing a kid in a school! This is not On the Waterfront." But it wasn't all Burroughs' fault. Blame it on his early reading of Acting: A Handbook of the Stanislavski Method. In the final analysis, though, even Burroughs had to admit he'd been asked do the impossible: play "a perfectly natural boy" when he was "unable to be even vaguely natural, let alone perfect." (True, he was a boy.)
By the age of 10, Burroughs was no longer in front of a camera, but he hadn't stopped acting up. One of the many domestic dramas played before his mathematician father and chain-smoking mother? Burroughs was convinced his parents ("common academic trash") had kidnapped him from his rightful family, the Vanderbilts, and on one memorable tour of the Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, hell broke loose. Burroughs refused to leave, but his parents forced him to. (To the tune of Kmart sneakers dragged across a white-marble floor.) Burroughs' revenge? After silently hoping he'd be thrown from his father's speeding car, Burroughs ran himself a hot bath at home, emptied into it an entire container of Morton's salt, and enjoyed the luxury of salt-water plumbing. (Just like at the Breakers!) It was during this same period that Burroughs developed a fourth-grade obsession with Christine Jorgensen, "the world's first famous transsexual."
It was an obsession that followed Burroughs all the way to San Francisco, where, at the age of 19, he worked as a junior advertising copywriter. The office receptionist, Amber, was six-foot-four with an Adam's apple and (receding) Diana Ross hair. She was once a he, and this was a Diana Ross "after a particularly brutal round of chemo." Still, Burroughs was transfixed. He flirted but not with Amber. It was with the idea of "sexual reassignment surgery." And why not? Burroughs was having "a really difficult time meeting gay guys who didn't seem gay yet were still caustic." As a woman, he'd be broadening the dating pool. But as a man who wore a size-13 shoe, he'd have to have his toes removed. Trouble walking? (S)he'd use a wheelchair. Then Burroughs came to his senses.
He returned to New York, bought a dog, continued in advertising, wrote a novel (Sellevision), developed into a major alcoholic, wrote a bestselling childhood memoir (Running with Scissors), and developed into a major drug addict. Then he quit his job, quit alcohol, quit drugs, wrote another bestselling memoir (Dry), quit smoking, and finally did meet the man he was meant for (pet name: the Schnauzer) after a line of random sexual encounters and/or blind-dated duds (a mortician, a Catholic priest, a dreamboat with a micropenis, and a psychiatrist who killed himself). This Burroughs update comes to you courtesy his third collection of autobiographical writings, Magical Thinking.
Post-Schnauzer, the essays tread close to contentment -- a couple's mini-argument over moisturizers, buying trips for Tide (with bleach!), dog talk, even talk of becoming dual daddies. But it's those pre-Schnauzer essays that find Burroughs in better, biting form:
A dictatorial cleaning lady who does a half-assed job on Burroughs' East then West Village apartments but who winds up $12,000 (and an added $900 in pennies) richer. A "rat/thing" trapped in Burroughs' bathtub that requires a blinking flashlight to induce death by seizure. An oral surgeon who's maybe a genius, maybe insane. A date who introduces Burroughs to his favorite tree, "Beth," in a Manhattan park in "Beating Raoul," an essay title that's yours to decipher.
All are proof that, according to Burroughs, it's the "down side that always works." The author is strictly speaking in "Up the Escalator." I'm talking the caustic comedy inside Magical Thinking, on shelves officially October 5th. •