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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'You Better Not Cry: stories for Christmas' by Augusten Burroughs

From the BLURB:

You’ve eaten too much candy at Christmas…but have you ever eaten the face off a six-foot-stuffed Santa? You’ve seen gingerbread houses…but have you ever made your own gingerbread tenement? You’ve woken up with a hangover…but have you ever woken up next to Kris Kringle himself? Augusten Burroughs has, and in this caustically funny, nostalgic, poignant, and moving collection he recounts Christmases past and present—as only he could. With gimleteyed wit and illuminated prose, Augusten shows how the holidays bring out the worst in us and sometimes, just sometimes, the very, very best.

You can keep your Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp crushes. . . if I am being 100% earnest and honest, my number #1 fan-girl crush is unashamedly on gay American writer, Augusten Burroughs.

I have read every one of his books and gotten a stomach cramp from laughing too hard at each one. He is my author/reader soul-mate and I’m sure that if we ever met I would fall at his feet and beg him to be my friend. I love his sense of humour, I love his brutal honesty and I just love him. . . ‘You Better Not Cry’ is further evidence of why Augusten Burroughs holds a special place in my heart.

Augusten Burroughs (originally Christopher Robison, until he changed his name at the age of 18) started out writing fiction with his first novel released in 2000 called ‘Sellevision’. That first novel was about four greedy and ambitious people who work at a television company. The novel was good and funny, but it wasn’t until the 2002 release of Burrough’s novel ‘Running with Scissors’ that he made a name for himself and was touted as the voice of a generation. . .

‘Running with Scissors’ was Augusten Burrough’s first memoir, and it was as harrowing as it was hilarious. It told the story of Augusten’s early teen years, when his addict/poet mother gave him up for adoption. . . to her therapist. What followed was years spent at Dr. Finch’s madhouse where the good doctor frequently gave Augusten drug samples, called the family into the bathroom to see his weird-shaped bowel movements and Augusten happily played ‘shock therapy’ with Finch’s youngest child, Natalie. ‘Running with Scissors’ was heralded as a uniquely sharp comedy of unflinching honesty, and was adapted into a 2006 film.

Thus began Burrough’s true writing career. In 2003 he wrote ‘Dry’, his memoir about hitting rock-bottom and getting sober. His 2004/2006 memoirs ‘Magical Thinking’ and ‘Possible Side Effects’ revisited his unstable childhood, and in 2008 he wrote ‘A Wolf at the Table’, a biography of his alcoholic father.

Burroughs wrote ‘You Better Not Cry’ back in 2009 – a collection of hilariously disturbing and enlightening stories about Augusten’s encounters with Christmas and the fat man. Despite the fact that this is my second re-read of the book, my stomach still cramped from belly-laughs. . . you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into with the book’s opening quote:

I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store, and he asked for my autograph.
- Shirley Temple

The short stories take place over the course of Augusten’s life – from when he was a young boy at the age of eight who couldn’t tell the different between Santa and Jesus, to his one-night-stand with a fat, French Santa when he is thirty-something.

On the surface each of Augusten’s stories are just a bit of outlandish comedy. But that’s only skin-deep – if you look beyond the antics of a young boy eating a wax Santa replica, you’ll actually notice that each of Burrough’s tales has real heart and perhaps even a moral message (even if you have to wade through murky waters to get there!).

Take Augusten’s confusion over Jesus/Santa. It makes sense, in a twisted way, that he would be confused in the month of December when he is bombarded by images of Jesus and Santa yet he is never explicitly told what everyone just expects his young-self to know.

As a young child I had Santa and Jesus all mixed up. I could identify Coke or Pepsi with just one sip, but I could not tell you for sure why they strapped Santa to a cross. Had he missed a house?

Augusten’s confusion is bitter-sweetly clarified by his Southern, devout grandmother who tries to explain Santa to her grandson;

Santa Claus, she explained, did not live in the sky; he flew through it once a year on a sleigh powered by reindeer. He lived in the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and some little people who made toys for him.
“You mean midget slaves?” I asked.
My grandmother sucked in her air. “Goodness gracious, no, I most certainly do not mean midget slaves. Where did you even learn to combine such words? These are little leprechauns he has up there with him and – ”
My grandfather blasted in. “Aw now, hell, Carolyn, don’t go twisting the boy back up in knots all over again now that you finally got him straightened out. They aren’t leprechauns, son. They’re elves. Leprechauns are those little drunk motherfuckers from Ireland.”

It’s at once a funny childhood anecdote – but how depressingly humorous is it that not even the adults in Augusten’s life can give a proper definition beyond the Coca-Cola imagining of the man in red. . .

Augusten Burrough’s writes a wicked combination of honesty and absurdity. The stories get sharper and funnier with a biting edge as Augusten grows into a curmudgeon alcoholic. The story of how he woke to find he’d just had a drunken one-night-stand with a Santa stand-in is particularly gross-out funny.

I knew what I had become. I wasn’t trying to kid myself or anything. I was that old man on the cartoons I used to watch as a kid. What was his name? With the big nose and the ghosts? And there was a little gimp kid that trailed him around? Scrooge, that was it.
And didn’t he talk to himself, too?
Actually, there was a clinical term for what I had become: miserable fuck.

And then there are those short stories that hark back to the true message of Christmas (if, slightly skewed). Those stories that reveal Burrough’s truly soft underbelly. . . at once heart-wrenching, unflatteringly honest and deeply funny. Like the last Christmas that Augusten spent with his boyfriend, who was dying from the AIDS virus:

And I began to let him go. Hour by hour. Days into months. It was a physical sensation, like letting out the string of a kite. Except that the string was coming from my center.

This is what Augusten Burroughs does so well. He writes funny like it’s nobody’s business, but he can turn tables and wear his heart on his sleeve just as easily and powerfully.

Augusten Burroughs is the wit of a generation. He is our answer to Oscar Wilde, and if you haven’t yet had the perverse pleasure of reading one of his books, let ‘You Better Not Cry’ be your first introduction to this caustic comedian. A perfect anecdote to Christmas-backlash with an uplifting message amidst the muck.

5/5

2 comments:

  1. I had seen this cover all over, but I had never given it a second thought... wow, this sounds amazing! I had not heard of this author and now I will definitely have to check him out!

    Awesome review! Thanks Dani, you again, opening my eyes to awesomeness! =D

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  2. I have not read Burroughs yet. YET....

    (my nutty co-worker who says Confederacy of Dunces is her favorite book *ugh* loves Burroughs, and for that reason alone I haven't cracked any of his books. Now I must remedy that!)

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