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Book Review: Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs

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While reading Augusten Burroughs’ essay collection, Magical Thinking, I finished each story feeling like the author was coasting. After the twisted subject and eccentric characters of Running with Scissors (soon to be a movie with Annette Benning and — cringe alert — Gwyneth Paltrow), and the skewed perspective he brought to the ubiquitous rehab memoir with Dry (take that, Frey), the short, fluffy stories of his latest book seemed more like dinner-party anecdotes than essays.

But the more I think about it, how is that so different from his previous work? All three books are quick reads with an intelligent, witty guide who digs just deep enough to make sense of his surroundings (as much as he can, considering the seriously messed up childhood that is the center of Scissors) without wallowing too long in any one point.

More importantly, what’s wrong with a collection of dinner-party anecdotes? If that’s what you know to expect, each one is exactly what it’s supposed to be: original, entertaining and just long enough to keep the buzz going between glasses of syrah.

He introduces the stories by defining the titular phrase.

Magical Thinking: A schizo-typal personality disorder attributing to one’s own actions something that had nothing to do with him or her and thus assuming that one has a greater influence over events than is actually the case.

When it comes to exposing this behavior, Burroughs often aims the honesty at himself. Whether he’s willing crazy co-workers to die, predicting his imminent appearance on The New York Times best-seller list, or justifying his moderate use of steroids, Burroughs exploits every eccentricity at his disposal.

The results can be hilarious, from his stint as a 14-year-old student at the Barbazon School of Modeling (where he mastered the Brooke Shields-splayed-on-the-floor pose) to his description of the opossum that was invading his country home’s backyard: “It had a long nose, thin, like a Swedish man’s penis.” OK, who thinks like that? That’s why you read Burroughs – to get those off-the-wall yet strangely accurate (not that I would know in this particular case, mind you) descriptions.

With 27 stories, some quite obviously end up as filler. When the buzz wears off, you might find yourself, as I often did, finishing a story thinking, “Is that it?” But don’t think about it too hard. Most of the chapters don’t require you to, anyway. Just whip it out on the train or bus to work, and you’ll be giggling at your new dinner party companion while everyone else is sulking into their coffee cups and RedEyes.

P.S. On a random note, I was originally going to start this review comparing Burroughs to David Sedaris and call it “Nothing Rhymes with Sedaris” until I realized Paris rhymes with Sedaris, which made me think of his Francophilic essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, which he also could have titled Sedaris in Paris, which is not as funny as his title but c’mon, how often do you get a chance to rhyme your name with the subject of your own book? The closest I can think of for me is Baiocchi in Bangkok-i. Or Baiocchi in Iraq-i. And those both suck.

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About Don Baiocchi