First, I must be candid about a personal prejudice. When presented with a contemporary memoir written by a white, middle-age American male, I am filled with dread and revulsion. Many of them fall into an autobiographical subgenre that writer Gina Frangello once described as “the scumbag at the center of the universe.”
The basic tenets require the writer to be a young man of great promise whose addiction to drugs/sex/alcohol/Call of Duty results from a childhood where he endured chronic terror from a father/mother/teacher/bruised knee. His degradation is so profound, it’s akin to mammals devolving and returning to the sea.
What I find so loathsome is the unbridled testosterone, the thinly-veiled smugness of the addict braggart. “Oh yeah, you think you took drugs? I once emptied the entire contents of a pharmacy down my throat. You think you hit bottom? Ha, your bottom is like stepping off the curb for me!’’ The authors eventually get clean and triumph, but, really, who cares?
And so I felt real terror when I received Chris Offutt’s memoir, “My Father, the Pornographer.’’ Was this going to be another attempt by a writer to become the undisputed heavyweight scumbag champion?
I am happy to report at the outset: No. Offutt, the author of several critically acclaimed novels such as “Kentucky Straight,’’ has written one of the most sensitive, nuanced examinations of father and son relationships I’ve read. The provocative, almost lascivious title tells a basic fact about the author’s father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V. “He eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books under eighteen different names. His novels included six science fiction, twenty-four fantasy, and one thriller. The rest was pornography,”
Offutt’s father dies in the opening chapters. The author is left with the task of disposing of his dad’s literary effects. After many 12-hour days sifting through 40 years of detritus that ranged from an abandoned mouse nest to a pristine copy of the first pornographic coloring book, Offutt manages to consolidate it all. “A few weeks later I arranged for a moving company to transport my father’s papers to [my home in] Mississippi. The movers charged by weight. Their estimate of Dad’s archive was eighteen hundred pounds. My inheritance.”
As the author painstakingly probes and searches, organizes and catalogs, he recounts one of the stranger childhoods on record. Once his father (bravely at age 36 with a wife, a mortgage, and four children) decided to become a writer, the younger Offutts became viewed as little irritating distractions who could elicit rage from their father by laughing, closing a door, or seemingly just breathing. Andrew had so many ever-changing rules regarding visits and behavior that might interfere with his writing that his children never stayed with him as adults, preferring the motels off the interstate 10 miles away.
The portrait Offutt paints of his father is, on one hand, of a deeply lonely and insecure man who thirsted for respect and recognition. On the other hand, Andrew was a revolting narcissist, cruel and emotionally abusive to his children and a petty coward who unsuccessfully sought fealty from a world that saw him as a backwoods crank, a hick pornographer.
In one of the most telling and complicated passages, his mother assures her son that the reason his father took up writing pornography was to come up with the money to pay for his braces. Offutt was forever reminded of it, one of many reasons he chose over the course of his life to stay thousands of miles away from the family home. In the end, Offutt discovers some surprising truths about his father, including at least one new persona he never suspected. Andrew often hid behind his many pen names. The final manuscript the younger Offutt discovers is his father’s writing at its naked worst. And, as painful as it becomes for both author and reader, it’s impossible to look away.
The purpose of memoir is to illuminate a central truth of the human condition through a personal lens. One reason the scumbag at the center of the universe subgenre often fails is that the writer’s obsession with showing himself to be the worst person ever can get in the way of greater truths. In “My Father, the Pornographer,’’ Offutt vividly recounts both his and his father’s flaws, but he never lets them get in the way of his search for answers to one of life’s prickliest dilemmas: fathers and sons.
MY FATHER, THE PORNOGRAPHER
By Chris Offutt
Atria, 272 pp., $26
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in California.