“My Father, the Pornographer” is an intense memoir about an unusual childhood. Its author, Chris Offutt, is a television screenwriter (“True Blood,” “Weeds”) and author whose previous books (“Kentucky Straight,” “Out of the Woods”) capture hardscrabble lives in the rural South. Offutt himself grew up in the Kentucky Appalachians under the thumb of a difficult and domineering father who, as it turns out, had a semi-secret double life as a prolific author of pulp pornography novels.
Offutt’s book is something of a literary detective story interwoven with memories of a youth riddled with sexual confusion and inarticulate yearning. When the author returns, as an adult, to his childhood home to sort through his late father’s capacious archives, the task quickly becomes a weightier undertaking. “The project,” he writes, “felt less like clearing a room and more like prospecting within his mind.”
The physical act of cataloguing and sorting thousands of manuscripts, letters and notes turns into a psychological exploration of who his father was. The task becomes increasingly sinister as Offutt uncovers a cache of pornographic writing so extensive it weighs 1,800 pounds. Offutt’s father, Andrew, did not have, by any standards, what would today be considered a healthy relation to women. His obsessions were violent and disturbing.
Offutt comes to see his father’s pornographic writings as a way of searching for “formal evidence that his sexual fascism was normal and that everyone else had it wrong.” Extensive excavation in this wormy subzone of paternal psychopathology is grueling for the author, who becomes “concerned that examining the minutiae of his life was turning me into him” and who verges on erasing himself: “I had become my own ghost,” he writes, “haunting my past.”
All of this was, I’m sure, cathartic enough for Offutt, a grueling if psychologically necessary reckoning; whether it redounds to the arena of general interest is open to debate. Some of the chapters here are curiously disjointed, skipping back and forth between the present and the past with no discernible pattern and a kind of tonal uncertainty that leaves the reader unsure of what to make of certain passages. (A harrowing account of child abuse at the hands of a mysterious stranger slips by with a strange offhandedness.) Despite his reactions against his paternal legacy, Offutt comes to admit that “we are similar in many ways, chillingly similar.”
Perhaps the strongest sections of the book, though, are the least personal — the ones that describe, for example, the nascent science fiction scene in which Andrew Offutt began his writing career, before he spiraled off into the darker reaches of fetish porn. In the 1970s, Andrew Offutt was an up-and-coming writer of hard science fiction, a genre that was just then coming into its heyday. He feuded with Harlan Ellison, collaborated with Piers Anthony and consorted with other foundational icons of the genre. He traveled, young sons and wife in tow, to science-fiction conventions, where “dashikis or open-necked shirts with giant collars, zipper boots, wide leather belts, and flared pants” were de rigueur. In 1971, he was summoned to New York by legendary publisher Barney Rosset, who commissioned a series of historical pornographic novels set in the Middle Ages. These sections of the book read like field notes from a time when the boundaries between high and low art, and between experimental literature and erotica, for that matter, were more porous.
Along the way, the darkness and psychic claustrophobia of Offutt’s journey is nicely balanced by a parallel deepening of his relationship with his mother, Mary Joe McCabe, who is the secret hero of the book. A country girl who married Andrew Offutt in 1957, McCabe remained indomitably cheerful through four decades patiently working as his literary assistant and collaborator. After her husband’s death, she achieves a jaunty liberation — “She could sleep as late as she wanted, eat a roast beef sandwich for breakfast, and read in bed” — and seems to have a far more balanced and empathetic understanding of her late husband than her son does.
As for Chris Offutt himself, his ordeal seems to have given him a measure of empathy for his father — “I had no idea how miserable he had truly been” — without supplying any unambiguous lesson. Most men come to a point in their lives where they must make some kind of reckoning with their fathers — it is practically the oldest story there is. Offutt’s experience was more fraught than most, but nonetheless there is a touching universality to his tale and its mix of longing and despair.
In the end, the value of this haunting account lies in Chris Offutt’s refusal to find a pat moral in his journey, or to reach for some neat, bow-wrapped reconciliation. On the contrary, Offutt concludes that “this undertaking hasn’t brought me closer” to his father. “If anything,” he writes, “it’s a constant reminder that no matter who I think I am, I will always be my father’s son.” This melancholy recognition is one that is shared by all of us, no matter who our fathers — or we — are.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
By Chris Offutt
Atria. 261 pp. $26