Augusten Burroughs Has a Broken Brain

But Lust & Wonder, the memoirist's new book, shows how he fixes it. Go see him Tuesday, April 4 at Books Inc. Opera Plaza.

Augusten Burroughs (Photo by Craig Cutler)

Augusten Burroughs’ newest book contains only a very small section toward the beginning that takes place in San Francisco, but that’s not to say famous S.F. figures aren’t on his mind.

On the same day we’re schedule to speak, he retweeted an exhortation about the importance of the Oxford comma: “Ayesha Curry, cookbook author, social media maven, mother and wife to NBA superstar Stephen Curry.”

“It’s very dangerous to omit it,” Burroughs says. “You can get yourself in some very tricky, sticky, ugly relationships without that little comma.”

Burroughs, whose eighth book, Lust & Wonder, came out almost exactly one year ago, knows all about sticky, ugly relationships. A chronicle of his fitful attempts to find love with men who seemed like The One, only to be subsequently unmasked as terrible mismatches, it’s full of honest appraisals of his struggle to maintain sobriety while building his career. He is, as he frequently observes, a big mess with a “broken brain,” and although he marries Mr. Right — Christopher Schelling, who had been Burroughs’ literary agent, and to whose Twitter handle the book is dedicated — Lust & Wonder is a hilarious account of non-personal growth. It’s almost an anti-Bildungsroman.

His brain is still broken “in a lot of ways,” Burroughs admits.

“I’m not like a wreck at the point of being dysfunctional, but I’ve got a lot of cracks,” he says. “I’m someone who worries a lot, I’ve got a lot of anticipatory stress, I’m a total catastrophist. Every time I leave a building, I expect something to come crashing down from the sky, a scaffolding to come crashing down. So that’s just always been sort of a part of me — but having said that, I’m so much happier.”

The fear of social opprobrium that caused Burroughs and Schelling to hide their relationship as it waved bye-bye to the professional realm seems to have receded, as well. And Burroughs’ reliance on Schelling has only deepened.

“He was my agent, which means he read every single word I wrote,” Burroughs says. “I’m not the best judge of my own writing, and since he reads everything, he says, ‘Maybe you don’t want to put this out there,’ or ‘Well, maybe this one’s going a little too far.’ So he knows me in the deepest way: how horrible I can really be, how selfish I can really be, how self-upset I can really be, how shallow I can really be.”

That Schelling knew all this before they got together is, effectively, what allowed them to stay together. (They celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary this Saturday, April 1.) And the fact that Burroughs maintains an external filter is notable, considering how he’s built a successful career out of publicly revealing how devastating his childhood and young adulthood were. Burroughs maintains that there was plenty that didn’t make it to the final draft of Lust & Wonder, and that, occasionally, “freshness of it was uncomfortable to write.” This wasn’t the case with his earlier work. Dry, for example, was written “moment by moment.”

“I didn’t even know I was writing a book,” Burroughs says. “I’d gone through rehab, and didn’t know what to do with myself. … I didn’t have any inhibition in that respect.”

About Lust & Wonder, though, he says, “This one was a little bit of a cringe: ‘Won’t people who’ve read my other books be surprised!’ ”

Surprised longtime readers may be, but it’s truly a laugh-out-loud volume with some marvelous observations and turns of phrase. QVC, was, pre-Twitter, “the purest form of distilled American culture available.” An ex-boyfriend had “retained a toddler’s good nature, but it had been molested by an old man’s bitterness.” On having fun in a buttoned-down American city: “We were displaying much more joy than is customary in Boston, so we packed up our merriment and went to catch our train.” And a multi-page treatment of boring party guests culminates in this remark about one particularly excruciating dullard: “I once had to sit across from him at dinner while he described the difficulty he’d experienced opening a jar.”

Here and there, the reader catches glimpses of Burroughs’ growing wealth and stature. The casual way he slips in his having purchased a home in Massachusetts while professing to be a disaster of a human being is a bit jarring. But mostly, Lust & Wonder reveals a professed recluse who misses his dogs — and who endured a 10-year stretch during which he was unable to read a book to completion.

There are whole sides of him that never make it into the books, he says. Like his love of cosmology and theoretical physics. Has “Augusten Burroughs” the composite character begun to acquire weight and gravitas of his own, I ask, or is there a one-to-one alignment between the “real” Burroughs and the one readers encounter on the page?

He pauses before answering.

“To a certain degree, I definitely turn it on when I’m on a book tour or giving interviews, or out in public in the world meeting people, unrecognized, somewhere,” he says. “That Augusten Burroughs, I try to be outgoing and focused on people, the best I can be. But normally, in my life I’m really really super-reclusive living out there, in my practically 300-year old house with four dogs and Christopher and trees as neighbors.” (He’ll be at the Opera Plaza Books Inc. on Tuesday, April 4 at 7 p.m.)

Burroughs can be as merciless about his doctors and therapists as he is about himself. He describes one as having the gray, smooth skin of a dolphin, while another has hair like Joyce Carol Oates in the 1970s. As it turns out, in real life, Burroughs and Oates’ respective tours will soon bring them to the same bookstore only a few days apart. They have never met — yet.

“I’ve met people who have met her, and I’m just absolutely fascinated by everything,” he says. “If I know you’ve met Joyce Carol Oates, that, to me, is, ‘Sit down, and tell me absolutely everything you know. What does she wear? What does she do?’ It’s weird, actually.”

“She’s one of those authors I’m obsessed with, like what’s his name? Nicholas Sparks!” Burroughs adds. “Tell me everything! There are certain writers that fascinate me, for various reasons. Put them on the lab table!”

Augusten Burroughs appears Tuesday, April 4, 7 p.m.. at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave., 415-776-1111 or booksinc.net.

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