I finished Augustyn Burrough's new book A Wolf at the Table a couple of days ago, and have put off writing about it. It's so horrifying that I don't even want to think about some of the stuff that happened in it, and so well-written that it's worthy of attention, but what to say? "It was a good read?" "I recommend this one?" "I liked it?" They all seem inappropriate.
The title character is Augustyn's father. At the beginning of the book, he stated that for a long time, he had no memories whatsoever of his father. Then, when he started remembering, he couldn't stop. His father is a terrifying, shadowy figure. When he was at his best in this book, he was denying any attention or affection to young Augustyn. So great was his need that at one point, he stole some of his father's clothing and made a "dummy dad" to cuddle with in bed at night.
When his father was at his worst, he was violent and abusive. He imbued the entire household with an aura of fear. For me, the worst scenes were those involving the family pets. I've always had an extremely strong emotional reaction to any sort of animal abuse or neglect. When Augustyn and his mother left the house in fear of their safety for the last time in the book, I was practically shaking because I knew there was one more household pet to go.
To Augustyn's credit, he tried to get inside his father's head using the few tools that he had. He tells us that his father lived the first eight years of his life with a doting grandfather and three teenaged aunts who treated him as a living doll. He was then thrown back to the home of his abusive biological parents. He won Augustyn's mother's hand by threatening to kill himself if she rejected him, and they lived horrifyingly-ever-after. This doesn't make you any more sympathetic to the man, but it helps explain how a normal person could become like that.
I'd read part of the same story a week earlier, from Augustyn's older brother's perspective. He'd hinted darkly at how his Asperrger's just may have saved his life, but the point was brought home even more clearly after this book. John Elder was older and less innocent than his brother when things started to go really bad. He was more independent (old enough not to want to cuddle) and was able to withdraw into his electronics (Augustyn remembers sneaking into his bedroom and seeing the rivulets of hardened solder on the carpet, and tubes and wires everywhere). But John Elder left out the part where he got into a violent argument with his father and Augustyn found his gun and begged him to kill their father for him; also the part where he started sneaking back home for Augystyn at night, to teach him how to shoot and defend himself. It was fascinating to see a different perspective on the man whose death I'd cried over a few days earlier. When I read the death scene in this book, all I felt was regret that it was apparently peaceful.
I read this book quickly, but it was a difficult read. I've felt sort of haunted by it ever since. I almost don't want it in the house with me. I think it's because of the ending, or lack thereof. There are plenty of books out there written by people who were abused as children. There are several narratives that they follow: "All this happened, but (s)he didn't get away with it;" "All this happened, but we made it up in the end;" "All this happened, and I survived it and look at me now." The story of Augustyn's father doesn't follow any of those. He remarried and died surrounded by the family he almost killed. Augustyn did escape the house, but his new "family" was far from suitable either. He never stopped trying with his dad, and never had much more success as an adult than as a child. And the book doesn't finish by showing him as a happy, successful adult, but as an alcoholic haunted by what he sincerely hopes are bad dreams but what he believes might be memories.
No, the narrative of this story only expands on the beginnings of those sentences: "All this stuff happened, behind closed doors, while all the while we went to school and work and the store, just like you do. All this stuff happened right down the street from someone just like you, right by people who hate child and animal abuse just like you do. So who's to say it's not happening on your street, and how do you know that man in the grocery store who gave you the cat food coupon isn't going home to starve his own son's cat to death? The man in my story could be anyone. Why, he could even be your new husband." And that thought is more terrifying than anything Stephen King ever wrote.