Editor’s Note: The Rivard Report is hosting a series of book reviews written by Our Lady of the Lake University students about works that will be featured during the 2016 San Antonio Book Festival. This particular review was written by an OLLU English professor.
Chris Offutt is a television screenwriter whose credits include Weeds, True Blood, and Treme, three quite distinct series that have in common, perhaps, outlier characters embroiled in unusual situations. He is on familiar territory, then, with his memoir My Father, the Pornographer, which like his acclaimed other works such as Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, deals with characters in the rural South.
Offutt is from the Kentucky Appalachians and the bleak, barren landscape he paints of his town — the hidden shop of a menacing bootlegger, a school with unsympathetic, punishing teachers, and the Offutt household — leaves us with a dominant impression of a dark, sometimes sinister existence.
As the title of the memoir declares, Offutt’s father is a pornographer. We learn this from the outset. And it isn’t an apologetic declaration. The elder Offutt, Andrew, wrote under a dozen pseudonyms, at least two of them women’s names. He doesn’t do so to disguise his identity. Each is a nom de guerre attached to another persona for the next pornographic sub-genre. And there are many sub-genres and many, many works of pornography penned by Andrew Offutt.
All that pornography becomes Chris’ inheritance after his father dies. Rather than destroy it all, he inventories it in an effort to figure out his father, his strange, even disturbing behavior, his offbeat proclivities. There is so much pornography; Chris must have it shipped professionally to his own home. The shipment comes in at an unimaginable weight — just shy of one ton. Not much else is too shy here, at least not in terms of Andrew Offutt’s occupation.
He quits his nine-to-five to write pornography full time. Offutt’s mother, Mary, is an accomplice in the undertaking, typing her husband’s hand-written manuscripts, helping tell the stories about sex and all its myriad permutations. And these are not the “articles” people used to claim to read in Playboy. These are raw, unexpurgated stories about sex in all of its manifestations, fetishized and otherwise.
The memoir offers several chapters about Chris and his siblings growing up in the house with their pornographer dad. The pornography was all out in Andrew’s cluttered, messy office. But the children cared less about reading it, weren’t even curious about it. What they did care about, what they were curious about was their own father. The reason for the emotional detachment he maintains consistently is the one thing they’d like to peek at.
Andrew and Mary took the four kids to many “cons” (yes, they had those in the sixties and seventies) where Andrew was admired by small legions of fans of his writing. The children were stuffed in a room or else roamed freely through the convention, exposed again to pornography. What can such exposure to pornography do to a young boy? For Chris, the articulation of the effects is difficult at best. Those chapters in the memoir are the most confounding for that adolescent inexpression. For his father, the obsession isn’t communicated either — even in 1,800 pounds of porn. For the son, this legacy is a one-ton weight that seems to mark his maturity.
Those same chapters are also the most heartbreaking. Chris (and perhaps his siblings) suffers in many ways. He is unsure about his sexuality, desensitized even to the romance of intimacy it seems. This lack of a voice, an understanding about it all, leaves Chris lost. He is very intelligent, but stifled at school. He bums around in surrounding counties and experiences repeated abuse at the hands of a “fat man.” He does so for money, aligning himself with characters who endured abuse and aggression in his father’s pornography.
Memoirs give us a lens into lives that others live with the promise of resonance, understanding. What resonance could come from such a work as this? Andrew Offutt remains enigmatic. Chris sets about on a fool’s errand intent on cracking the code of his father. As an adult, Chris studies page after page of his father’s vast, lurid library. The archives reveal the few times his father had something kind to say about Chris.
Among Andrew’s papers, Chris finds a copy of a letter where his father praised Chris’ own writing. In life, he had never done that. The praise he wanted from his dad, the ephemeral attention, was there among other people’s fantasies.
At first gloss, it’s hard to imagine getting through a true story about an obsession with pornography. Chris Offutt’s writing strips down these semi-closeted lives, shines a light into the parted curtains. He manages to expose what can also be beautiful about it — a story about a family. In the process, he finds himself.
Disclosure: San Antonio Book Festival Executive Director Katy Flato sits on the Rivard Report board of directors. Learn more here.
Top image: My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir was written by Chris Offut. Photo courtesy of LA Times.