The frightening thing I realized after reading the essay collection Magical Thinking is that Augusten Burroughs isn’t quite as funny when he’s not in pain. I felt mean thinking that, but it’s true. Though delightful, and still way funnier than many books you’re likely to encounter, Magical Thinking lacks the genius of Burroughs’s two memoirs, Running With Scissors and Dry.
Scissors is about Burroughs' life being raised by his mentally ill mother’s even more disturbed psychiatrist. Dry is about his battle with alcoholism. Heavy stuff on the surface, but the brilliance of those books was that Burroughs always found the humor in his pain. Not just humor – hilarity. I still stifle a laugh whenever I think of the passages in the rehab clinic in Dry, or the line in Scissors after Burroughs’s foster sister guesses that he is gay: “It is one thing to be gay,” he grouses. “It is quite another to seem gay.”
Magical Thinking is, by comparison, dismayingly upbeat. Yes, Burroughs mentions his troubled past, but he doesn’t explore it with the same piercing rawness of the other two books. And many of the book’s essays are about how he finds love with a nice guy. That’s wonderful, and the essays are still readable and very funny, but it’s not the same.
But even a happy Burroughs is better than no Burroughs at all. Who else would, as he does in the title essay, cheerfully recount how he successfully wished death on a hated former boss? And there’s plenty of classic Burroughs in the book’s first essay, “Commercial Break,” about how he landed a shot in a Tang commercial as a kid, then blew it by over-preparing. Burroughs is always worth reading, and if this collection doesn’t cut quite as deep as his other works, well, I guess you can’t keep reliving your life’s most painful moments. It’s good that Burroughs is letting us share in some of his joy. After all, he’s still one of the funniest writers working today. I guess he deserves to be happy.