By Toby Young
Da Capo Press, 329 pp., $24
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's Press, 304 pp., $23.95
For a guy so smart, why was Toby Young so dumb? A graduate of Oxford with degrees in philosophy, politics, and economics, he spent the early '90s in London editing The Modern Review, a bimonthly dedicated to mass culture as seen through the eyes of academics and intellectuals. (The magazine's motto: "Low Culture For Highbrows.") Camille Paglia and Greil Marcus appeared in its pages. Nick Hornby and Will Self were among Young's "discoveries." Then The Modern Review folded. Then Young moved to New York on the invitation of editor Graydon Carter and onto the masthead of Vanity Fair. Then is when, in How To Lose Friends & Alienate People, we learn just how dumb Young could be. Or was he innocent?
Innocent to think he'd be following in the footsteps of his hard-drinking heroes Ben Hecht, Dorothy Parker, and Herman Mankiewicz. When what he met up with was an army of flacks in the service of PR flacks and a creepy office atmosphere inside Condé Nast -- publisher of Vanity Fair, Vogue, etc. -- that can charitably be described as not of this earth.
Innocent to think he'd be rubbing shoulders with celebs. When what he did was knock heads with the goons who man the door at New York night spots or with the headman himself, Graydon Carter.
Innocent to think that the unmarried ladies of New York City are the most approachable, available women in the world. When what they are, in these pages, are calculating opportunists highly unimpressed by the dorky one-liners of Young.
Innocent to think he could drink 'til he drops indefinitely. When what Young needed from the outset and went on to get is a good AA group, some perspective, some appreciation for his parents, and some peace in the form of an awfully understanding English wife.
Which is, in a sense, a shame. His tell-all could maybe have been crueler and truer to the inanities he describes had he been ripped while writing it. As it stands, it stands in the shadow of that pitch-perfect black comedy about the magazine trade: Ted Heller's novel Slab Rat. Heller's job qualification? He once worked for Vanity Fair.
The qualifications needed to pull off a memoir on the order of Running With Scissors? None, other than an eye and ear for the ridiculous and the possession of a style -- a writerly style that matter-of-factly lays out quite possibly the most absurd upbringing ever.
Augusten Burroughs was 12 when his manic poet-mother and his alcoholic mathematician-father in Amherst, Massachusetts, split: she into the "care" of a Dr. Finch (a psychiatrist/lunatic); he into practically the ground; and poor Augusten into the filthy household of the good doctor, a household as crazy or crazier than even the insides of Vanity Fair.
It begins the day a contraption is pulled out of a closet and Augusten witnesses one of the Finch daughters "administering" electroshock therapy on her sister. This is play, and it hardly compares to the day Finch has the entire family reading for "signs" in his morning bowel movement. Or the day Augusten and one daughter demolish the kitchen so they can create a "cathedral ceiling." Or the day Finch hands Augusten a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a handful of Valium to fake a suicide (so Augusten can skip school). Or the day Augusten walks in on the Methodist minister's wife buried in the crotch of dear old mom. Or the night Neil, Finch's 33-year-old adoptive son, initiates Augusten into the un-niceties of oral then anal sex. (See that bedside tub of Queen Helene's Cholesterol hair conditioner? Leave it.) Or the day and night, any day and night, when the whole Freud-enriched Finch family sit yelling at one another while Mrs. Finch, "the Antichrist of mental health and emotional maturity," snacks on Purina Dog Chow. (Sample sisterly exchange: Natalie, 13, to Hope, 28: "You're so oral. You'll never make it to genital! The most you can ever hope for is to reach anal, you immature, frigid old maid.") All is not chaos, however. In the rare quiet moment, Augusten can relax with an Alberto VO5 Hot Oil Treatment while he gets all of the above and worse into his journal.
What's in store for this author after this highly publicized debut book? He lives in New York now, he has a steady boyfriend, and he has his own Web site at Augusten.com. But when his phone rings, pray it isn't an invite from Graydon Carter. Or don't. No need to. Burroughs ain't that dumb.