Michael Glover

Bum ego trip

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Augusten Burroughs

Atlantic Books, pp. 304, £

'Our lives are one endless stretch of misery punctuated by processed fast foods and the occasional crisis or amusing curiosity,' remarks Augusten (pronounced You-gusten, by the way) Burroughs as he creeps towards the end of what must be one of the strangest and most engrossingly repellent memoirs of dysfunctional American family life ever to be published.

Who is Augusten Burroughs anyway? Exactly. He is a nobody who is interested in nothing but writing about himself. And this book is that obsession made manifest. Everything is grotesque about it, from first almost to last. I say almost because the last few pages turn a touch poker-faced, if not moralistic - which is quite out of keeping with the freewheeling dottiness of 99 per cent of it.

The anti-hero's problems begin, as these things tend to do, with difficult, warring parents. His mother chain-smokes More cigarettes, writes confessional poetry of a decidedly second-rate stamp, compulsively sketches the Virgin of Guadeloupe in lip-liner, and regularly eats mustard sandwiches. His father is an irascible, alcoholic professor of mathematics. The father, we are told, suffers from psoriasis to such an extent that he resembles a dried mackerel - one of the book's many good jokes in awful taste. His mother, teetering on the brink of psychosis, is recommended a new shrink, the crazy Dr Finch, who presides over a family life quite as unusual as Burroughs' own. Dr Finch, who believes in the purgative importance of verbal and physical abuse, is appointed guardian of Augusten Burroughs, so much of the book is an account of what happens within the Finch household. The house is a filthy, chaotic mess. Turkey doesn't tend to stay on the plate, it hits the ceiling. Augusten is soon raped by Finch's 'adopted son' of 33, who later disappears to New York, never to be seen again. The Finch daughters, who spend their lives cussing each other out, also believe in 'Bible-dipping' - open the Bible at any page that takes your fancy, plonk your finger down on a word at random, and there will be the key to your future fate. Life's that simple.

Augusten hates school, and, in collusion with Dr Finch, he dreams up a ploy to get himself excused: get admitted to a psychiatric hospital. All in all, he is a sad floater, interested in nothing but fame and style. He craves fan letters, expensive watches, jewellery, endlessly polishing and repolishing such trinkets as he owns. He combs and dyes his hair obsessively, and his greatest ambition is to become a 'cosmetologist' - which, in case you are unaware of the term, necessitates graduating from beauty school. Augusten doesn't go though. He doesn't believe that he will ever acquire the necessary technical skills to graduate.

There is a great deal of sad and tasteless hopelessness to laugh at in this book. In fact, Augusten knows all this: 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is my equivalent of a home movie,' he remarks.