My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt
Atria Books, 2016; 272 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
What stuns me about Chris Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, is the grace with which our author distills a lifetime worth of memories regarding his turbulent relationship with his father into something both honest and compassionate. By the author’s account, Andrew Offutt was a hard man to know. A native of the Appalachian hills, Andrew dominated his family with an overbearing, sometimes cruel personality. His wife, children, and most anyone who crossed his path, including author Harlan Ellison, could not defend themselves from his criticism and anger. About the only way that Andrew found happiness in the world was as a writer, at first of science fiction, then later hundreds of pornographic novels that fit a variety of subgenres and perversions. Writing under eighteen different pseudonyms, Andrew became a literary king of smut yet never fully found happiness in the world.
Chris Offutt’s book is, in part, a sketch of a mostly dead market of literary pornography. With the help of his memories and his late father’s records, Chris charts the rise and fall of publishing dirty books that catered to the most intimate fantasies of readers. When the market dried up, Andrew Offutt became a writer-for-hire to singular customers who wanted their unique perversions realized. As Chris states, “It’s extremely rare for anyone, let alone a son, to have access to another person’s private and unfiltered fantasies.” Each book and much of his father’s private writing offer unfettered insights into a man who kept the world at arm’s length.
Chris Offutt does not sugarcoat his father, remembering that Andrew often reflected that he would have become a serial killer if not for writing, feeling that it allowed him to channel his inner demons into his work. We get our share of the bully, but the moments of Offutt’s memoir that are most surprising and moving are the glimpses of a happier man underneath the hostility. Chris remembers a father who found freedom as a beloved sci-fi author attending the first regional conventions. Chris reads the correspondence in which Andrew boasts his son’s literary skills and sends any early Chris Offutt book to a client who procures exclusive porno novels. How could Andrew Offutt act so disinterested at his son’s achievements, then gush to a stranger about his boy’s gift? Chris wisely never tries to solve his father but lays the pieces of in front of the reader to mull over just as he has for a lifetime. My Father, the Pornographer is a poignant portrait of an artist and father and how the two converge.