Chris Offutt’s memoir certainly has a catchy title: My Father, the Pornographer. It’s a very good book too. It’s a fairly typical memoir in a lot of ways, about an unhappy childhood and the writer’s vexed relationship with his father, and to a lesser extent with his mother. It’s about coming to terms with that childhood and, as he grew older, learning to see his father from an adult perspective and coming to understand how his father helped shape the person he is today. The book stands out because of its powerful writing; it’s simply and clearly written, catching in its straightforwardness and bluntness the force of his father’s personality and his own terror and anger in response.
His father was an obsessive writer; he produced hundreds of books, mostly pornographic novels, but also science fiction. Offutt’s parents became regulars at science fiction conventions, and his father collaborated with other well-known authors of his time. But he was a volatile man and ended up alienating most people he knew. He was verbally abusive to his family, and made his house a difficult place to be in once he quit his day job and began writing full time.
Much of the book is about Offutt’s efforts to clean out his father’s study, which contained a vast collection of pornographic writing, and to read and make sense of the work he produced. The story is as much about Offutt’s struggles through his task and his recovery afterwards as it is about his childhood — a childhood he spent roaming the woods of Kentucky to keep a safe distance away from his father.
I don’t think this book takes the memoir genre in a new direction, really, but to have produced a very good example of a story we are familiar with, at least in its rough outlines, is certainly an accomplishment. And Offutt’s father is a character who has lingered in my mind, a testament to Offutt’s skill with language.