by Chris Offutt
Atria Books 2016
(Because this review discusses two Offutts, when necessary I use first names to distinguish between father and son, this is not intended to be disrespectful, just a means of distinction.)
If you grew up in the 70s or 80s and were a fan of fantasy fiction, there is a good chance you either heard about or read Andrew J. Offutt’s work. Offutt was a prolific science fiction and fantasy author. Fans of Robert E. Howard and his characters Conan and Cormac Mac Art, have likely run into Offutt’s popular pastiches for both these characters. In fact, Offutt was admittedly an ardent fan of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and an unabashed fan of Robert E. Howard’s stories. When Offutt was not writing pastiches, he busied himself with writing his own fantasy novels, predominantly sword & sorcery, but also science fiction. His output was noteworthy, he published 30 works in the genre. However, Offutt’s sci-fi/fantasy work is grossly paled by his work in the erotica publishing industry.
Andrew J. Offutt died April 30, 2013, at the age of 78. His eldest son, Chris, inherited his father’s desk, rifle, and, according to Chris, eighteen hundred pounds of pornographic fiction. When his father died, Chris was left by himself to sort through the remaining vestiges of his father’s life. Chris’ siblings made it quite clear they wanted nothing to do with their father’s business, stories, or his legacy. That being the case, Chris spent the following year, with a little help from his mother, poring through his father’s belongings, sorting and organizing what remained. He details what unfolded during that time, nostalgically and emotionally, in a 2016 memoir titled My Father, The Pornographer, which quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. Despite the title, Chris spends more time in this memoir trying to come to terms with his father’s verbally abusive and unloving behavior than he does discussing his father’s pornographic/erotic work. As Chris sorts through what remains of his father’s life, he slowly discovers and discusses why he thought his father was incapable of having meaningful relationships, with anyone.
Andrew began writing porn when his son, Chris, was a child. He finished reading an erotica novel, tossed it on the coffee table, and loudly complained that the author did not know how to write. He boasted that he could do a much better job. Seeing his frustration, his wife challenged him to sit down and do just that. Andrew took the challenge personally, and, in the words of his son, “the rest is pornography.” Chris points out that he was constantly reminded that his father began writing porn to pay for his kid's needs, but this reminder was too often accompanied by a declaration of how Andrew wished his own kids had never been born. Something Chris spent years trying to come to terms with. Chris also details how he pored through boxes of his father’s manuscripts, categorizing them by genres and then specific topics. His method was meticulous and well thought out, based on genre, subgenre, and works that were something of an anomaly. He was careful to highlight that his father’s writing, and personal collection was utterly void of “kiddie porn,” something for which he felt great relief. The idea he might run across some while sorting through the collection had apparently been in the back of his mind.
While delving into his father’s pornographic/erotic works, Chris never declares that the porn was responsible for his father being an overbearing verbally abusive husband and father. He does, however, reveal how the porn might have been an extension of his father’s deeply troubled psyche, especially his jaded and disturbed attitude toward women. As the memoir unfolds the reader discovers Andrew’s hidden life and how, on several occasions, he confided with Chris that the porn kept him from becoming a serial killer. On the surface this sounds absurd, but Chris ponders whether the porn his father wrote did, in fact, kept those so-called demons at bay, or did his father merely say that to justify the works? It is not until the end of the memoir that Chris reveals the truth of his father’s claim and the psychological torment Andrew was apparently suffering. At that point, the question is answered when Chris reveals a hidden box he discovered among his father’s belongings, buried behind the desk. A box that Andrew declared was his “great secret.” It had always been hidden from his family. Even Mrs. Offutt, who knew more about her husband’s “secret life” than anyone, had no idea this box existed. What Chris reveals about this secret of secrets is both painful and insightful, bringing to light a few answers to aid him in his own struggle to understand his father. It also uncovered the degree of anguish and torment his own father might have endured.
The book is not solely about abuse, pain, and anguish. On a much lighter note, Chris spends several chapters discussing his father’s writing career in the sci-fi/fantasy publishing industry. It is here that Chris reveals some of his favorite memories. As a child, he recalled reading through his father’s collection of adventure stories from authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Daniel Defoe. Chris also recalled the science fiction/fantasy conventions his family attended and the various personas his father would portray at each convention. There are interesting stories about his father’s relationship with other popular sci-fi/fantasy writers, such as Piers Anthony. And, Chris reveals an embarrassing moment at the Hugo Awards where Andrew usurped the introduction he was supposed to give for the guest of honor by rambling on about himself.
Throughout the book, stories are divulged about Andrew’s idiosyncratic behavior toward insignificant things that would set his temper aflame. Things such as the ratio of air to chip content in a certain potato chip company’s bags. To appease his anger regarding what he interpreted as the company slighting their consumers, Andrew wrote a letter to the company arguing his case and expressing his disgust. In response, they sent him a case of potato chips. Overall, the book is written with concise and emotionally moving prose. Chris has a way of peeling back his father’s veneer and dissecting his behavior in a delicate and poignant fashion. This certainly draws his reader into the narrative. Because of this, I found myself loosing track of time, often unable to put the book down.