By Augusten Burroughs
Reviewed by Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Have any of you slept with Santa? Have you dreamed it? Have you joked about it? Augusten Burroughs has done all three!
Author of several hilarious books, Burroughs’ newest essay collection, “You Better Not Cry”, is about Christmas, sort of.
“Fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa. I want to go blind. Make me blind,” writes Burroughs of his encounter with Santa at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in his essay “Ask Again Later”. Joke? To us it is. It wasn’t to Burroughs at the time. Now a reformed alcoholic, Burroughs ended up spending the night with an old French speaking Santa in one of his many drunken, wild, blacked out nights.
Imagine waking up to an old guy who is patting the mattress beside him while smiling at you. You don’t recognize the room, the person (in this case, Santa), or what day it is. Many of us can relate. But were we as horrified as Burroughs?
Burroughs’ Christmas gift that year was literally waking up to Santa and later re-evaluating his sex life and relationships. He formed “The Guy List” (this writer is sure that many can write up a guy/girl/person list) to figure things out:
“I’d scribbled the name of some identifying characteristic of every guy I’d ever had sex with”:
The Unfortunate One
Investment Banker Slime
Calvin Klein Model
Head Too Small
Something Wrong Down There Guy
Cocaine Guy From NYU
Burroughs started to see a pattern: “…there was a chilling commonality among them. I had been less than sober with all of them.”
At the essay’s end Burroughs sees the same Santa in a bar. Santa was not ho ho hoing, he was putting back some brews. He looked sad, worn out, pitiful. “Ruination” is how Burroughs describes him. And although Burroughs is an asshole in many of his essays, his good side comes out at the end of “Ask Again Later”. Burroughs shows empathy, he feels pulled to comfort the man who he regrets sharing a night with.
“I wanted to comfort him and fix him. I wanted to do something to remove his terrible hollow…Maybe this need to repair the broken man was a problem of mine. Maybe it is what therapists called “an issue”. The truth was I didn’t care. It didn’t matter.”
Burroughs is not a fan of Christmas and he doesn’t hold back. His critiques come from having a troubled childhood and from undeniable truths about how North Americans celebrate the largest money making holiday.
In “Why Do You Reward Me Thus?” Burroughs describes himself as a “miserable fuck”. His misery allows him to accurately question society’s actions, in this case, Christmas: “I just resent the mindfulness of it all. And our obedience.”
Like in all his essays, Burroughs is honest while he contemplates his life. After reading that he slept with Santa it was no surprise that he slept on the streets for two cold days–Christmas Eve and Christmas Day–with the homeless people in the laneway around the corner from his New York apartment.
As mentioned earlier, Burroughs is often an asshole. This writer comes to that conclusion by the way Burroughs writes of people. In this case, Burroughs refers to homeless people as “bums” and “horrible creatures” and writes, “They almost seemed like regular people”, after spending some time with them.
A white, middle class man, and practicing alcoholic at the time when “Why Do You Reward Me Thus?” was lived, Burroughs writes of his biggest fear: “My greatest fear: I would end up a bum, like one of them. A nothing.”
Through talking with “them” Burroughs realizes how “them” can be anybody, how they all had different lives before he met them in a laneway. One guy was a Semiotics major at Brown University at one point.
Burroughs is taught how there is no formula to becoming homeless. The ideology of laziness that we are taught in terms of the homeless being where they are goes back to Burroughs earlier comment of the “mindlessness of it all” and “our obedience”.
The Semiotics major shares truth with Burroughs: “It just happens. You don’t decide one day: I think I’ll go out and become homeless. It’s a whole set of circumstances that align in just the right way.”
Shirley, a former singer, now homeless person, can almost be credited for why I was able to hold and read “You Better Not Cry” and Burroughs’ other books. She pulled Burroughs from the laneway and took him to a park after watching him make a fool of himself for days, telling everyone that he wanted to be a “bum” and that it was his “destiny”.
Shirley’s talk with Burroughs on a park bench was one of movies: the guidance counselor scene where a little boy is saved from himself through the love and care of a person in a position of power. Shirley had seniority on the streets; it didn’t matter that Burroughs was white and had money; he was on her turf and she lovingly didn’t want him there.
“I would ask that you stop drinking because I know. I know what alcohol does to a person. Especially an ambitious young person with so many dreams and more talent than she knows what to do with,” said Shirley.
“Those are the ones the booze seems to hunger for the most. And once you are with the drink, oh, how it strip-mines the soul. In the end you wind up with nothing at all. And it’s like that for everybody. It doesn’t matter how rich you are or how poor or how white or how yellow or how much of whatever it is you have inside you. It just does not matter. The drink is stronger. It will always win and you won’t even know it is trying until it has,” said Shirley.
Burroughs sobered up in front of Shirley. “As much as I wanted to think of her as a homeless, rambling drunk, I could not,” writes Burroughs.
Truth will do that to you.
“And if I could, I would ask that you write. You kept saying last night that you had ‘whole worlds’ inside of you that needed to get out. Well, get them out, my dear. Focus on this. On something positive for yourself. And for others. I would ask that you set those worlds free,” said Shirley.
We all need a Shirley in our lives. And we all need to listen to her.
“You Better Not Cry” has your eyes water at some points. Many times you want to punch Burroughs, many times you want to hug him, many times you just laugh out loud while reading his memories, most times you are thankful that he listened to Shirley because so many of us don’t.
In seven essays Burroughs lives up to his hype and takes you back in to his life that often holds universal stories and truths. This writer can’t wait for what he comes up with next.
And it’s OK to cry.
Black Coffee Poet will be taking next week off and returning with more reviews, interviews, and poetry in the new year.
Tune into to Black Coffee Poet Monday January 10, 2011 for a review of REDEMPTION by Roots Reggae artist Odel Johnson.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from Black Coffee Poet!!!