It’s funny how certain books worm their way into your life when you least expect it. About a month ago, I got an advance copy of a debut thriller from a new Swedish author. My publisher friend gushed about it—called it a genuine page-turner—but after several false starts, I simply couldn’t get into it. Blame it on work, which is especially hectic right now and doesn’t afford me a lot of time for leisure reading.
Then I came across Chris Offutt’s new memoir, My Father, the Pornographer (Atria Books, $26), and I quickly found myself staying up late several nights in a row to finish it. I was already fond of Offutt’s early work, including his excellent story collection Kentucky Straight (1992), and his memoir The Same River Twice (1993), which chronicled his life on the road after leaving the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky where he was raised. His novel The Good Brother (1997) was followed by more stories and a second memoir, and I was delighted seeing Offutt’s name pop up in the credits of shows such as True Blood and Weeds.
My Father, the Pornographer is exactly what the name suggests, but also much more. Offutt’s father was Andrew J. Offutt, a prolific science fiction and fantasy author who gave up a lucrative insurance career to become a full-time writer. What was not apparent to Chris (or his younger siblings) while growing up was that their father was grinding out novels such as Bondage Babes, Swallow the Leader, and Horny Daughter-In–Law under various pseudonyms, including John Cleve and Turk Winter. Science fiction was still a constant presence—Offutt was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1976 to 1978—but smut paid the mortgage and the orthodontia bills.
“In 1972 alone 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,” Offutt writes. When his father died in 2013, Offutt tasked himself with organizing his father’s archives, which totaled some 1,800 pounds of manuscripts, reference materials and correspondence. But that’s just a backdrop, and not even the most interesting part.
What makes My Father, the Pornographer such a compelling read is the trip Offutt takes us on. He describes, with great honesty and insight, the effects his father’s secretive career had on his family. Offutt’s father was adored at science fiction conventions, but was a difficult man to live with. In a very matter-of-fact tone, Offutt describes a period of sexual abuse he suffered (at age 15) at the hands of an older man he simply calls “the fatman.”
Wading through his father’s pornography has unusual effects on Offutt, but he refuses to abandon his project. Many times, I closed the book and thought about my relationship with my late father and how it influenced my own parenting. Ultimately, My Father, the Pornographer is both a master class on memoir writing and several appointments worth of family therapy. It’s a book about how we get to be the people we are and the difficult choices we make along the way.
My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir ★★★★☆