Augusten Burroughs has published two memoirs, a novel, and now with
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS, two collections of personal essays. In this
latest addition to his canon, expect to find more of his trademark
honesty and heartbreaking humor.
Like MAGICAL THINKING, his previous collection, POSSIBLE SIDE
EFFECTS covers a variety of topics --- from doll collectors to
childhood dreams, from dating to dentistry. Burroughs is not like
many a typical essayist, a distant or an objective observer. He is
the center of each tale, and each description is colored by his
unique perspective and even more unique background.
But knowing Burroughs's background, his bizarre often abusive
childhood, his battle with alcoholism, and his career in
advertising is not necessary to read POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS. He
fills in enough details and gives readers what they need to know in
order to fully appreciate his world. And this book is all about
Augusten Burroughs's world: he loses a tooth at his grandmother's
and fears the tooth fairy, gets a new dog, takes a creepy vacation
with his partner Dennis, gets a gushing nosebleed on an airplane,
and obsesses over his heartbeat. From the mundane to the
extraordinary, this is neurosis at its best.
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS isn't just a quirky read, although it is
often quite quirky. It is also, characteristic of Burroughs's work,
dark, sometimes scary, sometimes surreal. He writes about a
suicide, his mother's mental illness, his own alcohol abuse, race
issues, and hating his grandmother. This book can be brutal.
Burroughs's reputation as a humorist is perhaps a bit off the mark.
It's not that he isn't funny; it's that humor isn't always the
lasting impression of his work. Readers may walk away with a sense
of sadness. Yet it is a sadness buoyed by optimism. In fact,
Burroughs's optimism is key in his autobiographical material.
Without this trait, the material would be too depressing.
POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS is a touch less funny than MAGICAL THINKING,
but again it is not really about the humor. The humor, the wit, is
just the vehicle for delivering intense and raw emotions and honest
introspection. This book is weightier than it first appears; once
you get past the laugh-out-loud parts (and there are many of
these), you find yourself with a man exploring his own life in a
very public way. And he is a good writer, too.
This text repeatedly revisits stories familiar to Burroughs's
readers. Those looking for new or original material may be put off,
as Burroughs rehashes his childhood and admits embarrassing truths
about himself. In the essays where he focuses on other people, he
is at his best.
In POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS Burroughs rarely falters (but also rarely
strays from his formula) and overall has given readers an
interesting, not to mention enjoyable, book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 19, 2011