My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir
by Chris Offutt
Atria Books, 2016; 272 pp
Reviewed by Marc Watkins
My Father, the Pornographer firmly establishes Chris Offutt as a master of memoir. The story of Andrew Offutt’s authorship of hundreds of books of pornography, amounting to 1800 pounds at his death, could have easily veered into the tawdry realm of exploitative nonfiction. However, Chris Offutt manages to avoid this, crafting a thoughtful, moving, empathetic memoir of his father as a difficult man and struggling author.
Already a seasoned story teller, with a novel, two collections of short stories, and two books of nonfiction, Chris Offutt opens My Father, the Pornographer with a scene telling his father about the publication of his first story collection in 1990, a moment notable because it is the first time his father acknowledges his son as a writer. But this isn’t a time for praise, as Andrew Offutt tells his son: “I didn’t know I’d given you a childhood terrible enough to make you a writer.” The opening chapter sets the tone for the rest of the novel and is an apt example of Chris Offutt’s often quoted advice about story telling: “The secret is to start a story near the ending.” This moment is about as close we come to understanding how his father feels about his work as a writer, and Offutt’s subsequent search, trying to understand his father as an author and man drives the narrative. Indeed, it is this relationship between writers, more than between fathers and sons, which creates compelling tension in the book.
My Father, the Pornographer manages the rarest of feats, balancing a plot that engages a lay audience (my dad wrote hundreds of books of porn in secret), with writing that would make any author swoon with envy. I first discovered Offutt’s writing years ago in a dusty library copy of his first collection, Kentucky Straight. The writing was crisp and full of energetic prose. Years later, I still remember the last sentence to his story “Blue Lick,” as one of the most inventive and haunting constructions of synthesizing distance and time to emphasize the narrator’s emotional state: “I sat there till a mile past dark.” This careful attention to language and narrative tension carries forward in My Father, the Pornographer. One example early on in the book occurs when Offutt describes returning to clean out his father’s home: “No one occupied this space anymore, living or dead. I had become my own ghost, haunting my past.”
What I found most surprising was the compassionate portrayal of Offutt’s father, whose critical assessment of his son’s short comings as a writer were spelled out in a letter included in the book that is best described as venomous abuse. Andrew Offutt was not an easy man to live with. He was hard drinking, frightening to his children, and possessed a fragile sense of ego. Yet Offutt does not dwell on anger. Instead, he allows us to follow him on a journey into his father’s psyche as he pours over the tome of written pornography left to him. It is an unnerving legacy. Ultimately, this is a book about fascination and a need to understand his father as a writer, revealing uneasy and haunting truths for the author.