February 21, 2016

Review: "My Father, The Pornographer (A Memoir)", By Chris Offutt

My Father, The Pornographer (A Memoir)
By Chris Offutt
(Simon & Schuster)

When Andrew Offutt died in April 2013, he left his eldest son Chris with a ton of pornography. I mean that literally. When Chris packed up and shipped the contents of his father's office to his own home in Mississippi, the books and letters and assorted papers weighed more than 1,800 pounds.

Offutt writes, in this fascinating memoir: "My father was a brilliant, man, a true iconoclast, fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish, and eternally optimistic. ... Dad had no hobbies, no distractive activities. He didn't do household chores, wash the car, mow the grass, go shopping, or fix anything. ... He didn't sleep much. He drank. He rarely left the house. Dad was an old-school pulp writer, a machine who never stopped."

Andrew Offutt wrote and published more than four hundred books under eighteen different names (male and female), including John Cleve (which he regarded more as another persona than merely a pseudonym) and Turk Winter. His novels included some science fiction and fantasy, but most of it was classified as pornography. Offutt notes that the commercial popularity of written porn in America peaked during the 1970s, which was also his father's most prolific and energetic period. Andrew Offutt's goal was a minimum of one book per month. In 1972, he published 18 novels.
Dad wrote pirate porn, ghost porn, science fiction porn, vampire porn, historical porn, time-travel porn, secret agent porn, thriller porn, zombie porn, and Atlantis porn. ... Dad claimed to have single-handedly raised the quality of U.S. pornography. According to his private papers, he believed future scholars would refer to him as "King of XX Century Written Pornography".
Offutt gives us a look at his father's process and discusses several of his books, but I would have liked more context for the work. Andrew Offutt was incredibly prolific, but was he truly that influential? I have no idea. A brief history of the genre, some information about other authors, and when and why the genre died out would have been welcome.

The heart of the book is Chris Offutt, in his mid-50s, coming to terms with the complex relationship he had with his father. While clearing out his recently deceased father's office - a room he was forbidden to enter (and was afraid of) as a child - he quickly understands that this excavation offers a chance to "separate the writer from the man", although succeeds only partially at that.
I wanted an opportunity to understand him further through his work. ... Clearing Dad's office felt like prospecting within his brain. As I sorted, like an archaeologist, backward through time, I saw a remarkable mind at work, a life lived on its own terms.
By any measure, Andrew Offutt was not an easy man to live with. Chris Offutt's memories of his childhood in rural Kentucky, shared throughout the book, are dark and depressing. While his father sometimes joked that he was mentally ill, Offutt also quotes his father as saying (seriously, it seems) that he would have been a serial killer if it was not for the release of his writing career.

Offutt offers the few details he knows about his father's background. Andrew Offutt, a shy, sensitive bookworm, was born in 1934, during the worst of the Great Depression. It was a youth that was "shrouded in pain and difficulty". His own father died when he was only 17 years old.

His father "had little tact and no sense of diplomacy. ... None of us knew whom we were dealing with at any given moment." On visiting his parents as an adult: "Dad never made us feel welcome and didn't care for the presence of grandchildren."

Through the 1960s, married with children, Offutt worked as an insurance salesman while writing at night and on weekends. He was profoundly unhappy.
At age thirty-five he'd achieved his goals - social status, big house, nice car, his own business. He also felt snared by his values. He didn't like children. He made it clear to the family that he'd fathered kids due to Catholicism and resented the Church for the burden. ...

Though highly successful as a businessman, Dad was frustrated and miserable. ... Since childhood, all he'd ever wanted to do was write. Now he had more ideas and less time, and he hated the life he'd dutifully built. He wanted a way out but wouldn't leave my mother. Instead, he spread his misery to the family.
Chris Offutt cites two significant events that occurred in the mid-60s.
My mother recalls Dad sitting in the living room reading a pornographic novel he'd bought through the mail. Dad hurled it across the room and said, "I can write better than this!" She suggested he do so. By 1969, he'd published five and had contracts for two more.
Problems with Chris's teeth prompted the other event.
He believed he could double his output with a full-time typist. If he quit his job to write, and Mom typed manuscripts for submission, they'd make enough money to fix my teeth.

My parents were not brave people. Nor were they particularly bold in any way ... They worked hard and played it safe. After a great deal of planning, my father made the most courageous decision of his life, the only risk he ever took - but it was enormous. At age thirty-six, with four kids, an uneducated wife, and a big mortgage, he decided to pursue his lifelong dream of being a professional writer.

My father's sudden presence in the house jarred the family in many ways. He went from being gone fifty hours a week to being in the house all the time. Home was now a place of business. He was working, which meant the house had to be quiet - no loud talking, laughing, or walking. We learned to move silently up and down the steps. Doors had to be eased shut or left open. The slightest sound startled Dad, who would yell.
The office was off limits and its occupant was not to be disturbed. "Dad regarded any intrusion as not merely a distraction but a form of disrespect and attack. ... He never struck us or our mother, but we feared his anger, his belittling comments and inflictions of guilt. ... Our punishments were more of a temporary emotional shunning." Offutt's sister once told him: "I was afraid of the whole house."

In subsequent years, when the entire family would attend sci-fi conventions in the early 70s, Andrew Offutt would assume the persona of John Cleve, one of his many pen names. "The minute we arrived at the hotel, Dad began operating in full John Cleve mode, refusing to acknowledge his children." The Offutt offspring were given their own room, on a different floor than their parents. "It was well understood that John Cleve had no children."
Despite lifelong difficulties with my father, I lived for his attention. The only behavior that earned it was writing, which I began at age seven ...
Offutt is the author of several books, including Kentucky Straight, a collection of short stories, and The Same River Twice, a memoir from 2003. (It appears that he had been working on a version of this book about ten years ago, but stopped at the request of his mother).

Throughout his life, and especially when pouring through the physical history of his father's writing life (some of which is extremely disturbing), Chris Offutt worried about becoming more like his father.
The essential DNA of my father lay arrayed on the pages before me. This undertaking hadn't brought me closer to him. If anything, it's a constant reminder that no matter who I think I am, I will always be my father's son. I don't know if I'm a writer because of him or in spite of him. If my life has been motivated by rebellion against my father, what have I gained through the liberty of his demise? ...

I don't miss my father, but without his shackles to strain against, the world is terrifying and vast. I have lost a kind of purpose, a reason to prove myself. ...

I became concerned that examining the minutiae of his work was turning me into him. I wrote ten hours a day. At night I read. I avoided leaving the house. I got mad at small things, yelled at inanimate objects. ...

Months of close proximity to my father's pattern of thought influenced me to think like him, then behave like him - distant, preoccupied, and critical.
While Offutt ends the book on an uplifting note, he has to venture outside of his family to find it. It is a recollection of roaming the Kentucky woods with a pack of boys from the surrounding area. "I don't recall particular events, only the sense of friendship and loyalty, laughter and acceptance. There were no boundaries. ... We could go anywhere and we did. Nothing could hurt us but the land itself."

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher.]


laura k said...

Great review, really interesting.

I can't believe this is the same guy who wrote The Same River, Twice. That has been on my to-read list since it came out.

allan said...

The book is deceptively deep.

Zenslinger said...

I read several of the Conan pastiche novels and Cormac Mac Art (another Robert E. Howard character) as a kid. I remember a sex scene or two that was a bit more intense than the average sword and sorcery sex scene.