Chris Offutt places his literary beginning at age 9, when his father gave him his worn copy of "Treasure Island." But his powerful, gracefully written memoir "My Father, the Pornographer" shows that it was something he was born into.
Offutt's father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, published approximately 400 pornographic pulp novels (plus six science-fiction books, a thriller and 24 fantasy novels) under 18 pseudonyms. He often churned out a book a month, with titles like "The Sexorcist," "Diana's Dirty Doings" and "The Girl in the Iron Mask" (Vols. 1-8). His wife, Chris' mother, typed every one.
When his father died in 2013, Chris began to clear out his office in the attic — forbidden ground to him and his siblings when they were kids — and uncovered hundreds of books, published and unpublished, under a sheen of dust, mouse nests and the shed skins of snakes.
His three siblings dismissed the possessions — worn silver dollars, mail-ordered precious stones, a gold Cross pen, four gold-painted robin eggs — as worthless, "evidence of his distorted view of the world." They encouraged him to trash everything and bow out — and he never names his siblings in the book, which heightens a sense of his personal isolation within his family.
A recipient of the Whiting writers award and author of two books of short stories, one novel, television scripts and three memoirs, Offutt grapples with his life growing up in Kentucky under a domineering, narcissistic father. At 55, he sits at his father's desk — a treasure chest of valuables that is also a Pandora's box — and reckons with the man who was both a writer and his father.
Andrew Offutt earned a good living as an insurance salesman; he drove a Mercedes and bought the biggest house in the poorest of towns in Kentucky. Keeping up appearances was important to him. He traveled frequently for work and, when home, continued to make house calls after dinner. He was fun, even when he controlled the play. When his father, with his mother's support, decided to quit selling insurance and earn a living as a writer, he worked at home, locking himself in the attic. He saw his kids even less, becoming increasingly moody and controlling. At one point he seems to evolve into Jack Nicholson of "The Shining," threatening to kill Chris in the basement by hanging him by his thumbs. Luckily for his family, his threats never became physical.
As a boy, Offutt hung out with local "hill" kids — "we loved each other in a pure way that none of us was loved at home" — tramping through the woods or buying whiskey for their fathers from the local bootlegger. In school, Offutt was viewed as defiant, a smart-ass forced to sit apart from his fellow students, opposite a kid deemed "retarded."
Offutt beautifully captures the cultural and subcultural mores of the 1960s and '70s, including a peek into the burgeoning world of science-fiction conventions. His father had received accolades for his early science-fiction work — he was part of the same circle as science-fiction writers Piers Anthony and Harlan Ellison — and was invited to his first sci-fi con in the early 1970s.
But he got more attention for his pornographic novels, which he mostly wrote under the name John Cleve. In fact, he became a minor celebrity attending the shows in character as Cleve. To conventions in other states, he brought the entire family (Chris was the oldest at 12). At the hotel, the kids were placed in a room on one floor, largely ignored, while on another his mother and father would get separate, adjoining rooms to "entertain" others. A year before, Chris had sneaked into the attic and read his father's books: He knew what "entertaining" meant.
Offutt's prose is clear-eyed and unflinching, even in the face of great conflict and pain. As a freshman in high school, Offutt joins the school theater company and is excused from many classes and eventually starts ditching class altogether (though he still scores well on tests, which is the only thing important to his father) and roams the town. Then he meets the "fat man."
The fat man invites teenage Chris to his apartment and has him lie down naked on his bed while he performs sexual acts on him. Offutt visits the "fat man" frequently, until he disappears. Offutt tries to make sense of his own actions: "My parents would be proud of my open-mindedness in such a small town," he speculates. "I believed that what I was doing with the fat man made me similar to them. They wrote porn and had affairs." But he kept the encounters secret for 25 years.
Offutt later attends Morehead State University and eventually gets accepted to the prestigious University of Iowa MFA program, where he studied with writer James Salter, who he initially figured would be like Andrew — "controlling, pretentious, cruel, and overbearing." He marries and has kids and talks of the itinerant life of a "visiting professor" where he makes little money. To earn more he learns screenwriting and in time writes for "Treme," "True Blood" and "Weeds."
Going though his father's mountains of porn — 1,800 pounds of materials he had shipped home — he himself becomes sexually numb, which impacts his relationship with his wife. He steps away from his father's work and only after his death began asking questions of his mother, who became a kind of touchstone for him.
Offutt recalls the excitement he felt when his first book, the short-story collection "Kentucky Straight," was bought in 1990. When he called home in with the news, his father responded: "I'm sorry. … I didn't know I'd given you a childhood terrible enough to make you a writer."
Rotella is the author of "Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria" and "Amore: The Story of Italian American Song."
My Father, the Pornographer
Atria: 272pp., $26