Chris Offutt has the combination that award-winning author Adam Johnson says is made up of the writer who is both talented at an important level and also has something important to say. Rarely does a writer have both, Johnson says. In Offutt’s latest memoir My Father, the Pornographer this combination is on full display.
The child of a writer, Offutt grew up immersed in the world of a working man of letters. The demands on him and his siblings to remain quiet at home, the time spent watching his brother and sister while his parents were away at sci-fi conventions (Andrew J. Offutt was both a prolific and heralded author of fantasy and sci-fi novels), and, most of all, and this coming following his father’s death, facing the rather overwhelming reality that his dad was also the author of hundreds of porn novels. Offutt sums this discovery up perfectly in the book, saying, “My father was a workhorse in the field of written pornography. After five decades he died in harness.”
In his usual fluid prose, Offutt gives an account of his task compiling organizing his father’s work into a comprehensive bibliography in this latest memoir. But how Offutt handled this task alone in no way sums up the large, human view the book projects. We learn, as we do with all of memoirs to date, as much about Offutt himself as we do about the subject of the book. In this case, his formidable years growing up in the tiny east Kentucky town of Haldeman, Kentucky, and then later, when he’s dealing with the fallout from his father’s death.
A great example of how Offutt managed in this book to keep a larger, human view in place while also telling the story of both himself and his father, comes fully into the light in the following passage:
“A few years later Dad began calling me late at night, 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.”
And writing — the act of creating — is also featured, often and beautifully, such as this passage in which Offutt speaks to his motivation to continue working on the craft.
“On the wall of my room I fastened a mirror directly above my typewriter. Surrounding the mirror were photographs of writers whose work I admired. My only hope of joining their company was sitting at the typewriter. If I didn’t write, the mirror was empty. It was a powerful inducement to work.”
For all that’s accomplished in My Father, the Pornographer it could how candid Offutt is that stands out the most. His account of his father’s life as a writer and his own ways of dealing with his father and the rest of his family is told in the very straightforward way that is a staple of his work. Recounting various events are done so with that same practicality he brought to the conversation about suicide on the phone with his father. But rather than what could have been a stoic, heartless narrative of two lives, Offutt’s book pulses with heart and courage and purpose, with insights on every page.
There are very few writers producing better memoirs than Offutt and My Father, the Pornographer is further proof of that fact. Should you enjoy this offering, it would do you good to add to your reading list his other powerful works of nonfiction including The Same River Twice and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.