"As a little boy, I had a dream that my father had taken me to the woods where there was a dead body. He buried it and told me I must never tell. It was the only thing we'd ever done together as father and son, and I promised not to tell. But unlike most dreams, the memory of this one never left me. And sometimes…I wasn't altogether sure about one thing: was it just a dream?"
When Augusten Burroughs was small, his father was a shadowy presence in his life: a form on the stairs, a cough from the basement, a silent figure smoking a cigarette in the dark. As Augusten grew older, something sinister within his father began to unfurl. Something dark and secretive that could not be named.
Betrayal after shocking betrayal ensued, and Augusten's childhood was over. The kind of father he wanted didn't exist for him. This father was distant, aloof, uninterested…
And then the "games" began.
With A Wolf at the Table, Augusten Burroughs makes a quantum leap into untapped emotional terrain: the radical pendulum swing between love and hate, the unspeakably terrifying relationship between father and son. Told with scorching honesty and penetrating insight, it is a story for anyone who has ever longed for unconditional love from a parent. Though harrowing and brutal, A Wolf at the Table will ultimately leave you buoyed with the profound joy of simply being alive. It's a memoir of stunning psychological cruelty and the redemptive power of hope.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
Sitting in my high chair, I held a saltine cracker up to my eye and peered through one of the tiny holes, astonished that I could see so much through such a small opening. Everything on the other side of the kitchen seemed nearer when viewed through this little window.
The cracker was huge, larger than my hand. And through this pinprick hole I could see the world.
I brought the cracker to my lips, nibbled off the corners, and mashed the rest into a dry, salty dust. I clapped, enchanted.
The hem of my mother’s skirt. A wicker lantern that hangs from the ceiling, painting the walls with sliding, breathing shadows. A wooden spoon and the hollow knock as it strikes the interior of a simmering pot. My high chair’s cool metal tray and the backs of my legs stuck to the seat. My mother twisting the telephone cord around her fingers, my mouth on the cord, the deeply satisfying sensation of biting the tight, springy loops.
I was one and a half years old.
These fragments are all that remain of my early childhood. There are no words, just sounds: my mother’s breathy humming in my ear, her voice the most familiar thing to me, more known than my own hand. My hand still surprises me at all times; the lines and creases, the way the webbing between my fingers glows red if I hold up my hand to block the sun. My mother’s voice is my home and when I am surrounded by her sounds, I sleep.
The thickly slippery feel of my bottle’s rubber nipple inside my mouth. The shocking, sudden emptiness that fills me when it’s pulled away.
My first whole memory is this: I am on the floor. I am in a room. High above me is my crib, my homebox, my goodcage, but it’s up, up, up. High in the air, resting upon stilts. There is a door with a knob like a faceted glass jewel. I have never touched it but I reach for it every time I am lifted.
Above my head is a fist of brightness that stings my eyes. The brightness hangs from a black line.
I am wet-faced and shrieking. I am alone in the awake-pit with the terrible bright above my head. I need: my mother, my silky yellow blanket, to be lifted, to be placed back in my box. I am crying but my mother doesn’t come to pick me up and this makes me mad and afraid and mad again, so I cry harder.
On the other side of the door, he is laughing. He is my brother. He’s like me but he’s not me. We’re linked somehow and he’s home but he’s not home, like my mother and her voice.
Opposite this door against the wall, there is a dresser with drawers that my mother can open but I cannot, no matter how hard I pull. The scent of baby powder and Desitin stains the air near the dresser. These smells make me want to pee. I don’t want to be wet so I stand far away from the dresser.
This is my first whole memory—locked alone in my room with my brother on the other side of the door, laughing.
There is another memory, later. I am in the basement sitting on a mountain of clothing. The washer and dryer are living pets; friendly with rumbling bellies. My mother feeds them clothing. She is lifting away pieces of my mountain, placing them into the mouth of the washer. Gradually, my mountain becomes smaller until I can feel the cool of the cellar floor beneath me.
A form on the wooden stairs. The steps themselves smell sweet and I like to lick them but they are coarse and salty; they don’t taste as they smell and this always puzzles me and I lick again, to make sure. The thing on the stairs has no face, no voice. It descends, passes before me. I am silent, curious. I don’t know what it is but it lives here, too. It is like a shadow, but thick, somehow important. Sometimes it makes a loud noise and I cover my ears. And sometimes it goes away.
“Did my father live with us at the farmhouse in Hadley?”
I was in my twenties when I called my mother and asked this question. The farmhouse—white clapboard with black shutters and a slate roof—sat in a brief grassy pasture at the foot of a low mountain range. I could remember looking at it from the car, reaching my fingers out the window to pluck it from the field because it appeared so tiny. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t grab it, because it was just right there.
“Well, of course your father lived with us at the farmhouse. He was teaching at the university. Why would you ask that?”
“Because I can remember you, and I can remember my brother. And I can remember crawling around under the bushes at the red house next door.”
“You remember Mrs. Barstow’s bushes?” my mother asked in surprise. “But you weren’t even two years old.”
“I can remember. And the way the bushes felt, how they were very sharp. And there was a little path behind them, against the house. I could crawl under the branches and the dirt was so firm, it was like a floor.”
“I’m amazed that you can remember that far back,” she said. “Though, I myself can also remember certain things from when I was very little. Sometimes, I just stare at the wall and I’ll see Daddy strolling through his pecan orchard before he had to sell it. The way he would crack a nut in his bare hands, then toss those shells over his shoulder and wink like he was Cary Grant.”
“So he was there?” I pressed her.
“Was who where?” she said, distracted now. And I could picture her sitting at her small kitchen table, eyes trained on the river and the bridge above it that were just outside her window, the phone all but forgotten in her hand, the mouthpiece drifting away from her lips. “Yes, he was there.” And then her voice was clear and bright, as though she’d blinked and realized she was speaking on the phone. “So, you don’t remember your father there at all?”
“Just . . . no, not really. Just a little bit of something on the stairs leading to the basement with the washer and dryer and then this vague sense of him that kind of permeated everything.”
“Well, he was there,” she assured me.
I tried to recall something of him from that time; his face, his hands, his memorable flesh. But there was nothing. Trying to remember was like plowing snow, packing it into a bank. Dense whiteness.
I could remember the pasture in front of the house and standing among rows of corn as tall as trees. I could remember the smell of the sun on my arms and squatting down to select pebbles from the driveway.
I could remember how it felt to rise and rise and rise, higher than I’d ever gone before as my trembling legs continued to unfold and suddenly, I was standing and this astounded me and I burst out laughing from the pure joy of it. Just as I threatened to fall on my face, my leg swung forward and landed, and so fast it seemed to happen automatically, my other leg swung forward and I did it again—my first step!—before tumbling forward onto my outstretched hands.
But I could remember nothing of my father.
Until years later, and then I could not forget him no matter how hard I tried.
Copyright © 2008 by Island Road, LLC. All rights reserved.
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about A Wolf at the Table are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach A Wolf at the Table.
1. What do you make of the brief but chilling scene that opens A Wolf at the Table? How does it affect your expectations for the story that follows? If you've read Burroughs' other books, did the first pages of his new memoir shock or intrigue you? Why? How is this book a departure from his previous ones?
2. Why do you think Burroughs tells much of the memoir from the perspective of a little boy? What are the advantages and disadvantages to this approach?
3. Could the "Wolf" of the book's title be read as a metaphor that extends beyond the father? For example, can memories become more real and terrifying than the incidents or people that inspire them?
4. Compare and contrast Burroughs' portrait of his father with his portrayal of his mother in Running with Scissors.
5. In chapter two, how is Augusten's destruction of the violin a manifestation of his rage at his father? Where else in the book is Augusten's anger with his parents displaced onto something or someone else? Might Augusten's hypochondria (page 170) or his later problem with drinking (chapter eighteen) be examples of this? Why?
6. Consider Burroughs' website, www.augusten.com, where he writes about and posts videos of his dogs Bentley and Cow. Does A Wolf at the Table predict or explain his intense relationships with animals?
7. On page 31, Burroughs writes that he "felt very close to his father examining his things" because "in a way, he was his things." How can people become their "things"? What objects do you associate with those who were or are important to you in your own life?
8. How do you interpret the mother's story in chapter seven about her marriage to Augusten's father? What does her story reveal about her as well as her marriage? Does her story shed any light on the father's behavior? If you've read Running with Scissors, does his portrayal of the mother in that book complement or conflict with your understanding of the parents' marriage and Burroughs' childhood in this book?
9. On page 107, Burroughs writes: "I realized that my father was two men – one he presented to the outsideworld, and one, far darker, that was always there, behind the face everybody else saw." Do you think Augusten's father is a sociopath? Do you think his father is capable of murder? Why?
10. Do Augusten's feelings about his father truly evolve and change by the close of the book?