The gift of unhappiness

by Ruth Nichol / 26 December, 2009

Augusten Burroughs says he loves Christmas. "I buy all of it: the cheesy music, the gaudy lights and the spray snow, especially the spray snow."

Unfortunately, as you can guess from the title of his darkly comic Christmas-themed collection, You Better Not Cry, Christmas does not love Burroughs. The title is like a threat, possibly accompanied by the wagging finger of Burroughs' -explosively bad-tempered father.

There's plenty to cry about in You Better Not Cry - not least the fact that the publisher has tried to disguise the book's modest length by using so much white space there are only 25 lines per page, stretching seven relatively slight stories to a -respectable-looking 221 pages.

Even those familiar with Burroughs' journey from abused childhood to alcoholic adulthood may find themselves challenged by his account of Yuletide disasters. At one point, for example, he experiences a pre-pubescent gay sexual awakening when kissing - then eating - the lips of a life-size wax Santa in his parents' living room.

As for his unsavoury encounter with an ageing French Santa in a sleazy New York hotel room a decade or so later, it's more -horrifying than humorous.

Still, you have to hand it to Burroughs: he can mine comedy from the blackest of situations. How else can you explain the success of his 2002 bestselling memoir, Running with Scissors, which made Frank McCourt's impoverished Irish childhood look like a Disney movie?

Burroughs' parents have a starring role again in several of the stories in You Better Not Cry, and compared with his earlier books he portrays them almost affectionately.

Of the three stories set in Burroughs' childhood, the funniest - and least confronting - is And Two Eyes Made Out of Coal, in which little Augusten attempts to construct the gingerbread house featured on the cover of his mother's Woman's Day magazine.

"By no stretch of the imagination was this a gingerbread house," he writes. "Four walls, a flat roof, rows of windows, four stories high; I had built a gingerbread public housing tenement, a little gingerbread slum. And I could populate my small-scale confectionery representation of urban blight with the deformed gingerbread men that I had baked alongside the cake."

It seems a minor and comfortingly normal disaster compared with those that befall Burroughs in the other six stories.

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