My wife is a big Augusten Burroughs fan, so when the chance to snag Possible Side Effects came up, I just knew I had to do it. She's got good taste in authors, and only one of them has let me down (though even she hated that particular book). Of course, I read it first, and I do have to say that Burroughs is quite a good writer. I didn't find the book quite as funny as I've heard, but many of the essays included did make me smile and wince at the same time. Evidently, Burroughs has lived quite a tortured life, and the stories are both funny and poignant at the same time. Some are stronger than others, though.
In all of his books, Burroughs riffs on stories from his life. Possible Side Effects is no different in this respect. Burroughs covers the gamut from childhood memories of his manic-depressive mother and dismissive father to more recent stories with his partner, Dennis, and the rest of his chaotic life in between. His family is definitely messed up; none of them appears the least bit normal (though Dennis comes close). Even his friends have some serious issues. The stories are in no particular order, so we can jump from hearing about Augusten convincing Dennis to buy a new dog to go with their current one all the way to hearing about Augusten having to visit his favorite grandmother down in Georgia once a year (and then a later story where he talks about his other grandmother, who appears to be a demon from Hell).
Usually, the stories in Possible Side Effects have multiple streams of consciousness, or at least two pieces that go together in some way. Burroughs isn't afraid to go off on a tangent. However, he typically is able to tie everything together at the end. Occasionally he meanders to a finish that I found unsatisfying. In "Taking Tests, Taking Things," he begins by talking about what pushed him away from working in advertising as a living, then how he decided he wanted to become a cop. He talks about the tests involved, moving on to how he once had a security job at a store. The ending of the story is quite funny, but the story itself just eases its way to the end with no real coherence.
Thankfully, while there are definitely weaker stories in the book, most of them don't have that problem and actually either made me laugh out loud or almost made me cry. "The Forecast for Sommer" tells the story of a woman who took care of Augusten during some of his mother's bad times, and how one day when she had taken him out for the day, she took him back to her place. His vivid descriptions of her apartment, his conversations with her, and the poignant ending when we hear what happened to her made me tear up. Burroughs writes with such a deft touch in stories like this, with bits of humor thrown in but nothing that will overshadow the touching aspects. Some of his childhood stories are the same way.
Other stories lean more toward the comic, but even these have their moments that bring a twinge to your heart. In "The Wisdom Tooth," he talks about the first vacation he has taken with Dennis in years and the horrible string of events that happen when he breaks a tooth at a local restaurant. I almost died laughing from the way Burroughs described this trip (and then almost doubled over in sympathy pain when I read the description of what had actually happened). But then he talks about how much Dennis means to him, and it exerts emotional heft. None of these stories are equal; each one has its own blend of pathos and humor that make them a joy to read (even the ones that seemingly don't have much of a point).
Any Burroughs fan will already have snapped up Possible Side Effects (very possibly in hardcover last year). As a new reader of Augusten Burroughs, I can definitely say that this isn't a bad book to start with. Part of me wishes that the stories had been ordered in a more chronologically linear fashion, as a couple of times I was confused at the timeline (is he with Dennis at this time? No, he's doing personal ad dating, so he can't be). But by the middle of the book, I didn't care anymore. Instead, I was losing myself in the stories and not worrying about it anymore. Burroughs generally does a good job of telling the reader when a particular story takes place, and since it's a book of essays/stories, there's certainly no need to read his books in order.
You've probably heard a lot about Burroughs. Possible Side Effects isn't a bad place to start your odyssey.