Augusten Burroughs took the world of memoir by storm with his 2002 debut, Running with Scissors. In the ensuing decade and a half, Burroughs trademarked his acerbic yet poignant style with a slew of books as rich in laughs as they are in heartbreak, from the gut-wrenchingly raw Dry to the tongue-in-cheek Magical Thinking. Since his last release in 2012, Burroughs devotees have been chomping at the bit for some new material, and praying the old magic is still there. And this month’s Lust & Wonder does not disappoint.
Where his earlier works concerned themselves with Burroughs’ upbringing, his alcoholism, and his place in the world, Lust & Wonder focuses largely on the author’s quest to make sense of his romantic history. We follow him through two decades’ worth of relationships, outlined in the kind of painstakingly neurotic detail only a master can deliver. Burroughs’ drive to discern where his self begins and his partners’ end is an endeavor recognizable to anyone who has ever been coupled up. The reader gets the sense that this is an especially difficult proposition for Burroughs, however, as he is exceptionally good at honing in on both his own and others’ flaws. The result is a bitingly funny narrative that takes no prisoners. Everything is fair game, from one boyfriend’s terrible haircut, to another’s horrific taste in garage architecture, to Burroughs’ own obsession with all things shiny and expensive.
As many of his books do, Lust & Wonder gives us an intimate perspective on the author’s tendency toward self-destruction and negativity. Burroughs will never be mistaken for a “glass half full” sort of person (if in doubt, see the cover of Magical Thinking). He’s a chronic downer who lives in perpetual fear of the worst-case scenario and, often, scenarios so outlandishly bad they’re downright comical. When his anxiety becomes overwhelming, he usually reaches for the nearest terrible choice in the hope that it will numb his panic. What makes him most charming, of course, is that he knows this about himself. He intimates with renewed insight how this constant state of stomach-gnawing foreboding gave birth to the alcoholism he described in Dry, and for much of Lust, he’s reasonably secure in his recovery and living his life in sharp relief. Sober, he is painfully aware that being so does not solve all of his problems.
Perhaps it’s Burroughs’ overly keen sense of his own shortcomings that gives rise to one of the book’s principal themes: staying in relationships well past their expiration dates. Although he’s more than willing to cut to the quick of his partners’ flaws with surgical precision, Burroughs takes an unseemly amount of time to pack his bags. As we follow him down the rabbithole of his thinking about each pairing, one thing becomes clear: he assumes his carping is evidence he is the problem. Rather than his partner or simply a bad fit being the culprit, Burroughs takes the fall every time. This questionable belief causes him to spend years bailing out sinking boats. Until, that is, he finds his one true love, but I won’t spoil that part for you. It is perhaps enough to say this book will give hope to even the most skilled self-saboteurs, and, as in Burroughs’ worst nightmares, you won’t see the end coming till it hits you.
All told, Lust & Wonder is the kind of book we have grown to expect and treasure from Augusten Burroughs: wry, playful, anxious, and dotted with moments of reverence for the both the beauty and the pain of life. Burroughs fans would be satisfied with nothing less.
Lust & Wonder is on shelves March 29.