I’d never heard of Chris Offutt before I saw the title of his newest book, but I had been familiar with some of his work.
A writer with credits on two TV shows I watched for a while, (“True Blood” and “Weeds”) I had likely been intrigued by the characters Offutt created and laughed at his dark, twisted humor.
Both are present in spades in “My Father, The Pornographer,” his new memoir of his childhood growing up in the hills of Kentucky, the son of a man who made his living writing pornography.
It’s the kind of honest memoir, like “The Glass Castle,” “Angela’s Ashes” and, well, um, hmmmm… are there others? that makes you wonder how some people make it through.
Early in the book, Offutt tells of the time he called his father to say his first novel was going to be published. “I’m sorry,” his father said. “I didn’t know I’d given you a childhood terrible enough to make you a writer.”
“My Father, The Pornographer” is not a sob story, though. Far from it. It’s a clear-eyed look at his upbringing, his troubled and troubling father, his mother’s sacrifices and how they all came together to create the writer of this thoroughly engrossing memoir.
Offutt’s father, Andrew Offutt, wrote hundreds of pornographic novels with titles like “Bondage Babes” and “The Sexorcist” and “Brother Darling!” under nearly 20 pen names from the 1960s through 2011. Andrew, who achieved some success writing science fiction, turned to pornography when Chris was a teen and needed braces. He had had enough of badly written porn and decided to stop bitching about it and do something about it. So he quit his job as an insurance agent (with four kids and a stay-at-home wife) to devote himself to writing pornography.
While it seems to have satisfied the father’s need, the family suffered. Offutt and his siblings date their childhood in two periods: When dad worked outside the home and when he started writing at home. He was a tyrant to his children — none of whom appear in the book in any real way. Their absence seems to indicate their own emotional trauma they may not have wanted to deal with in such a public way.
Offutt doesn’t shy away from anything and his honesty is both shocking and engrossing. “Dad began calling me late at night,” he writes about his father late in his life, “maudlin from bourbon. He said he’s been thinking about suicide. He’d even picked out the place—the bathroom shower—so it’d be easy for Mom to clean the mess. He figured he’d use a shotgun but had run into a problem. His arms were too short to reach the trigger. My first thought was practical: use a forked stick. But I refrained from advice, and merely listened.” After his father’s death of alcohol-induced cirrhosis, “I found the old shotgun hanging on hooks above the door, the metal pitted, the action rusty, the barrel filled with grime. It was a break-action single-barrel .410, forty-two inches long. I placed the barrel against my face and could easily reach the trigger. Dad was taller, with much longer arms than mine. Either he’d lied to me on the phone or he’d traded in a twelve-gauge for one with a shorter barrel.” He concludes this brief section with this: “Every time I shoot, I think of my father’s dismal talk of suicide, and how he drank himself to death while the shotgun rusted on the wall.” It’s that stripped down ambiguity that makes for such a moving memoir.
The book often reads like a detective story—Offutt is both a son trying to come to terms with his feelings of love and fear of his father and a disinterested party trying, perhaps, to find out what in his father’s childhood was terrible enough to make him the type of writer he was.
I can understand why people who aren’t weird like me would be turned off by the title, but there’s no reason to be. The pornography is only in the background; we read merely racy glimpses. What we see instead is a human story of a man who examines his life and family relationships and comes up with no pat answers.
Andrew Offutt was what he was, Chris Offutt decides: A flawed and scarred man making his way in the world the best he could. Though the details differ tremendously, that makes him not much different than any of us.