Outside of a small Kentucky town in the 1960s, Andrew Offutt settled his family near the Daniel Boon Wilderness and got to work writing and publishing pornographic novels. The hard-working writer had no idea that his eldest son, Chris, would go on to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and become the celebrated author of many books: Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods (story collections), The Good Brother (a novel), and No Heroes and The Same River Twice (memoirs).
Andrew Offutt was a difficult and competitive man. It’s lucky he didn’t sense that his intelligent son might be a competitor. Chris’s childhood would have been even harder.
Chris and his siblings knew what their dad was writing in his office all day. Since the office was off-limits to the kids, they were all the more curious. Now and then, Chris snuck in there to have a look around.
“As a kid,” Chris Offutt writes, “I’d left his office quickly, giving a swift and nervous glance at the closet, which was always shut. Never seeing its contents gave the closet enormous clout; it was a Pandora’s box with a doorknob.”
When his father dies many decades later, Chris inherits a singular burden: cataloguing decades’ worth of his writing, most of it porn—1800 pounds of the stuff. But he’s wary about steeping himself in this project. For many years Chris has been privately sorting through a myriad of hurts inflicted by his dad, whose pen name was John Cleve.
Now middle-aged, Chris opens the closet door. He finds on the shelves “a wreck of papers” and manuscripts.
Wadded into a musty ball was a John Cleve shirt, now mildewed and rotting. A trail of dried mouse droppings led to a large nest composed of tattered manuscript pages. Twined within the rodent’s home was the shed skin of a snake . . . Throughout my childhood, the most familiar adult refrain was: “Watch for snakes” . . . My seventh-grade teacher taught us that poisonous snakes had a vertical pupil, but getting close enough to see the eyes put you at risk.
Here we encounter a father whose work and accomplishments are forbidding, dangerous, and dirty. What Chris Offutt resents is not pornography, but the father who put alarming sexuality into his kids’ heads. He made frequent sexual remarks around the children. He was often angry with them. His talk and his anger settled into one fearful thing in the spine of each child.
Nevertheless, Chris Offutt sincerely praises his dad throughout the memoir. “My father was a brilliant man, a true iconoclast, fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruelly selfish, and eternally optimistic.” His dad’s motive for writing pornography in the first place surely mitigates some of his rougher behavior: Chris needed expensive orthodontic treatment. His dad wrote pornography for the money.
Chris Offutt wisely resists making his dad a saint, a rebel hero, or even a good guy. Instead, he lays down the family snapshots all together and leaves the contradictions unexplained. Now he admires his father, now he disdains him. Here using a voice of admiration, there speaking in a voice of pain, he engages the reader with the shifting perspectives of a mind at odds with itself.
When Chris was a boy, his father told him a mean story: He said Chris had an older brother, John, but that he, Andrew Offutt, chopped him up and put him in the toilet. “To prove his point, he wrote ‘Hi John’ on a scrap of paper, led my siblings and me to the bathroom, and flushed the note.”
At this moment it’s hard for a reader to sympathize with Andrew Offutt. With some reservation, Chris Offutt does it for us: “In retrospect, it’s clear that my father was trying to be funny with the kind of joke that gets carried away until the humor is leached out and the audience is confused. I can forgive my father for a failed joke. I have made many myself. But as a young boy, I fully believed my father had killed my brother and therefore might kill me.”
Though we suffer with the child, we check our temptation to make a monster of the man who inflicted this grief.
Andrew Offutt believed he was capable of the most ghastly deeds, even murder. Once again, he taxed Chris, as an adult, with stories he didn’t need to hear. “If not for pornography,” Andrew Offutt claimed, “I’d have been a serial killer.” But the son knows the father better than he knows himself: “He was not athletic or strong and therefore was incapable of overpowering most people. He was also a physical coward, having never been in a fistfight. He never struck his children or his wife.” He also never followed through with any of his delusions about his capacity for violence. He loved Henry Miller and wrote a lot of porn.
It makes sense that Andrew Offutt admired Miller. A better man than many people knew, Henry Miller made himself look worse than he was in his books, maybe to explore the terrible nature that exists in all people, maybe to excoriate himself in the face of the human tendency to show one’s self as good. Whatever the reason, Andrew Offutt had a need to convince others that he was the worst kind of villain. Now his son has restored him to a highly flawed, troubled man.
Chris Offutt continually reaches beyond his own feeling to sympathize with a man many readers would prefer to demonize. In that regard, My Father, the Pornographer is contemporary memoir at its best. It achieves the rare miracle of re-creating the human heart on the page.