My Father the Pornographer
(Atria Books, 2016)
Chris Offutt is a masterful writer. His ability to immerse a reader in his narrative, his clean and clear sentences and his powerful descriptive passages all have served over time as examples of American writing at its best. In his latest memoir (his third), he attempts a mixed tale of his father’s writing career, his own childhood and writing life, and their difficult relationship over several decades. Andrew J. Offutt was a prolific writer of science fiction/fantasy and pulp pornography. His output was close to four hundred published books - the bulk of which focused on sado-masochistic sex.
Chris Offutt depicts his father as both genius and abuser, a tyrant in the home and an impressive writing “machine.” While it is masterfully written, this is not a memoir that is easy to read. While other reviewers claim to have read it in one sitting, its inherent darkness and descriptive passages of child abuse and (however fictional) extreme torture and violence against women are deeply disturbing. But this is also one of the book’s strengths. Too many memoirs are full of positive messages, trite phrases and desperate attempts at “recovery.” The recovery Chris Offutt is making in this memoir is one of bibliography, of childhood memory, and ultimately, of the relationship between a writer and his own writing father.
There is hyperbole (in one passage, Chris Offutt refers to an early story of his father’s as “reminiscent of…a combination of Salinger and Hemingway”) just as there is brutal honesty (“I needed to believe in the friendship of rocks because Dad often threatened to kill me in the basement.”). At times the narrative becomes too much of a recitation of Andrew Offutt’s proclivities including a list of historical tortures enacted on one woman which later appear in his unpublished life’s work – a “comic” entitled The Saga of Valkyria Barbosa. The volume of catalogued narrative acts of violence against women at times overwhelms the text and I found myself putting the book down and not wanting to return. But where Andrew Offutt’s extreme proclivities and viciously enormous ego threaten to drown the overall narrative, Chris Offutt’s adept handling of structure and language reins things in. Just when I’ve lost interest in one man’s brutal “imagination,” his son’s strong talent for writing poignant and beautiful narrative moments comes in to redeem the text. One such passage comes after Chris Offutt has discovered a document in his father’s papers detailing a horrific catalogue of torture: “I drove home and watched thousands of lightning bugs float in a field against the dark tree line. Cicadas roared steadily…Despite the beauty of the night, I could not rid myself of the tortures my father had compiled.” And that is a part of the problem with reading this memoir – while we as readers can enjoy the son’s sharp talent for descriptive prose, we cannot rid ourselves of the horror of the father’s obsessions with violence.
Chris Offutt states his initial goal in exploring his father’s writing was simply to create an accurate bibliography of his work. Inheriting on his father’s death in 2013 some “1800 pounds” of his father’s personal papers, the son sets about cataloguing, organizing, and generally obsessively detailing his father’s decades’ long writing career. In 1970 Andrew Offutt quit his successful insurance job to write full-time. Imagining himself a writer on par with his favorites (Henry Miller is cited as one), he began a career that spanned several decades and ultimately encompassed some four hundred pulp novels, various S&M comics, and pornography written exclusively for private clients.
Andrew Offutt’s relative success in the Science Fiction publishing world led to the “only family vacations” the Offutts took – visiting the varied Science Fiction Conventions of 1970s America. At these conventions, the Offutt children were booked into their own hotel room and left to their own devices – experiencing a total lack of parental supervision or care even when the eldest Offutt (Chris) was seriously injured. This lack of care pervades narratives of Chris’s childhood and he describes his only salvation as the woods surrounding the family home in rural Haldeman, Kentucky. The woods of Eastern Kentucky pervade Chris Offutt’s writing—both fiction and non-fiction—and his descriptions of the natural world are many of the high points of this memoir.
While Offutt senior creates a persona for himself as tyrant and recluse in the family home, Offutt junior roams alone through woods and town (and convention hotels). This roaming leads both to joyous moments and terror. In one of the most disturbing and poignant childhood narratives in the book, we are told about the sex abuse a young Chris Offutt suffered at the hands of a local man known only as “the fatman.” Offutt suggests that this abuse led to his own emotional detachment later in life. That he was also suffering from a different kind of abuse—the neglect of his parents—is painfully clear when he states, “I believed what I was doing with the fatman made me similar to [my parents]. They wrote porn and had affairs. If they knew about the fatman, they would respect me, maybe even like me.” This section of the memoir is perhaps the most moving part of the narrative. While Chris Offutt is careful to insist that his father was never physically violent, the “tyrannical intensity” of the Offutt home clearly shows a man who was impossible to live with and it was with a great deal of relief that I read the following, “I am not my father. I’m a middle-aged man contemplating my own mortality through the lens of a parent’s death.”
Often when reading a memoir, I ask myself why this particular book needs to exist. In the case of Chris Offutt’s latest memoir, not only is there a portrait of one of the most prolific pornographers in the history of American pulp writing but an essential narrative of the development of one America’s greatest living writers: the son, Chris Offutt.