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Toil & Trouble: A Memoir

Review

Toil & Trouble: A Memoir

In the world of literature, there exists a certain kind of author who excels at one of the trickiest but most enjoyable genres: the memoirist. Keenly observant, unflinchingly honest and often sharply self-deprecating, memoirists turn the most fascinating moments of their lives into books that are, quite literally, stranger than fiction. But even within this unusual subgenre, there is another class of authors entirely: serial memoirists. And at the center of these repeat memoir-writers, sitting on a --- no doubt, jewel-encrusted --- throne and unexpectedly donning a witch’s hat, sits Augusten Burroughs, happily holding a copy of his latest work, TOIL & TROUBLE.

For years, Burroughs has reigned supreme over countless bestseller lists, with each of his memoirs (beginning with the mega-hit RUNNING WITH SCISSORS) having delighted, enthralled, grossed out and shocked readers worldwide. But through it all, he claims, he has kept only one secret close to his heart and away from his readers’ eyes: he is a practicing witch. Remarking on the absurdity of this claim, Burroughs plainly supplies us with a list of fantastic and paranormal things he doesn’t believe in, and explains that “witches” and “witchcraft” are noticeably absent. “The thing is,” he confesses, “I wouldn’t believe in them, and I would privately ridicule any idiot who did, except for one thing: I am a witch.” Well, who can argue with that logic?

"I admit that the contemporary scenes in Connecticut were my favorite to read in TOIL & TROUBLE, and I delighted in the moments when they overlapped with Burroughs’ more supernatural side."

Longtime readers of Burroughs’ works (this reviewer included) will know one thing going into TOIL & TROUBLE: Whether or not you immediately believe his claim, you undoubtedly will be gifted with a memorable work, populated by his witty insights into his own --- at times chaotic --- mind. What more can you ask for? Weaving together vignettes into his childhood with his troubled mother and more contemporary snapshots from his marriage, Burroughs crafts the perfect potion for an unputdownable read. The witch (warlock?) is in.

Beginning with a shocking scene in which a young Burroughs is riding the school bus and senses that something is wrong with his grandmother, only to find out that she has just been in a traumatic car accident, he delves into his rich history of witchcraft and sorcery. Upon learning that her son has the “gift,” his mother explains to him that he comes from a long line of witches and begins to instruct him on how to use his gift. Witches cannot, she tells him, make the impossible happen (so this means no flying), but they can focus their supernatural senses on a desired act so keenly and powerfully that they can set it into motion. In one particularly memorable scene, Burroughs envisions his school bully covered in hair, and when the boy returns to school the following fall, he has been diagnosed with precocious puberty. Coincidence, you may say --- but what would you call it, Burroughs asks, if you lived through one coincidence after another on a daily basis? That, he states, is witchcraft.

Exciting and spooky though it may seem, witchcraft is only half of TOIL & TROUBLE. The other half centers on Burroughs and his literary agent husband, Christopher, fleeing Manhattan for Connecticut, where they purchase a gorgeous old house and settle into a new phase in their marriage: homeownership. It is here in the glorious countryside that Burroughs’ paranoia and somewhat manic delight in buying things comes to life in humorous and outlandish ways --- so, basically, everything you want from an Augusten Burroughs memoir. Paired with his husband’s more pragmatic ways, Burroughs’ personality comes to life, highlighting an entirely new side to him (and no, I’m not even talking about the witchy side). A devoted husband, eager homeowner and hapless dog owner, Burroughs seems to have finally found the life he has always deserved. And whether it was witchcraft or sheer luck, it is wonderful to read.

Alternating between these domestic scenes and recounting various moments in his life when witchcraft has served him, Burroughs lets his wit and endless talent for crafting a scene carry him, even when the stories are less than believable. This is what is so great about Burroughs: your belief in him ultimately does not matter, because he believes in himself emphatically, and it is this confidence that elevates his works from trashy memoir to a satisfying book that feels universal, despite how very personal it is. Even when he is at his spookiest or most ridiculous, Burroughs has a unique talent to translate his anxiety, depression, addiction and love into both deeply personal and highly relatable experiences --- the bubbles on the cauldron are that he can actually write, and do it well.

I admit that the contemporary scenes in Connecticut were my favorite to read in TOIL & TROUBLE, and I delighted in the moments when they overlapped with Burroughs’ more supernatural side. Even if you are turned off by the claim that he has hidden something for so long (a fair fear, considering that his memoirs are often no-holds-barred), I can assure you that you will find everything you love about his work in this book. And who knows? You may just turn from a skeptic to a believer.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 18, 2019

Toil & Trouble: A Memoir
by Augusten Burroughs

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2019
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250019958
  • ISBN-13: 9781250019950