“My Father, the Pornographer”
Author: Chris Offutt
Publisher: Atria Books
Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)
Seriously, how could you not at least browse a book entitled “My Father, the Pornographer”?
In a world flooded with memoirs, this one certainly promised to be unusual, and it is.
Chris Offutt, who teaches writing now at Ole Miss, is an accomplished professional writer with novels such as “Kentucky Straight” and “The Same River Twice.” Offutt also wrote for the TV shows “True Blood” and “Weeds” and has a previous memoir—“No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home,” which is about his native territory, the area around Morehead, Kentucky, his childhood friends, school—the home town. This book, however, is about his family, inside the house.
Offutt’s father Andrew had made a successful career as a salesman, and by 1968, 35 years old, had formed an insurance company with offices in three towns, but Andrew had the itch to write. At first, writing supplemented his income but he then sold his business and wrote, at home, all the time, demanding absolute silence and obedience from the family. Chris and his siblings were terrified.
The writing was a family secret, especially the nature of the writing..
Andrew started with science fiction but, unhappy with the “constraints of physical reality,” soon moved into fantasy, in 25 novels creating whole new cultures, then worlds, then multiple parallel universes. That led to sci-fi- porn, interstellar, interspecies hi-jinks, and finally, pure porn, under a variety of names but mainly John Cleve.
Andrew wrote and mother typed final copy. They rarely left the house, but Offutt’s mom and dad did attend the geeky conventions like Worldcon where Dad was a star and, as Andrew Offutt, dressed in dashikis. (If he attended as John Cleve he wore a djellaba.) They sometimes took the kids with them and, Chris learned later, his mom and dad were swingers at these cons.
But, this is Chris Offutt’s autobiography after all and one quickly sees his childhood was painful. Dad was a bully, always critical, never encouraging. The kids escaped outdoors to the woods and, in Chris’s case, read endlessly for escape. Damaged, Offutt had trouble with relationships, suffered severe depression and restlessness, living in seven states in four years, but managed to stabilize his life by the time his dad died of cirrhosis of the liver.
It then became Chris’s job to help his mom clear out the house and to deal with his father’s legacy: 1800 pounds of pornography.
Offutt decided, instead of chucking it, to examine it, to learn about his distant father by reading and cataloging everything. Although at the end, he doesn’t “like him more or love him less,” the process proved excruciating, depressing, even life-threatening.
But for this reader it is the quantity that is staggering. At first, Andrew earned only about $600 per 170-page book, then $1,300 per book, then became a kind of “concierge pornographer” writing novels for individual clients with special tastes, for $3,000 apiece.
In 1972 Andrew published 18 novels. Of his lifetime output, 6 were sci-fi novels, 24 were fantasy, one a thriller and, before videocassettes ended the Golden Age of pornographic novels, over 400 books of porn: pirate porn, ghost, vampire and zombie porn, time-travel, secret agent, Old West, and Atlantis porn.
He was a pornography factory, a one man dirty-book-of-the-month club.
There were eighteen pen names . As John Cleve there were 130 books in 18 years; as Turk Winter he published 250 titles. There was also a hoard of unpublished material including a 400-page comic book, “The Saga of Valkyria Barbosa,” a work of unparalleled violence, cruelty and misogyny.
Offutt’s father “often said that if not for pornography, he’d have become a serial killer.” Offutt considers this idea because “far better to be the son of a pornographer than a serial killer,” and then, sadly, rejects it. “Thinking of himself as a serial killer if not for making porn allowed him to surrender completely to his obsessions….Admitting that he liked it was too much to bear.”
While admittedly possessed by some kind of demons, Dad was nevertheless wildly inventive and imaginative–he may have conceived of the “serial killer” decades ahead of the rest, as well as email and texting. Surprisingly, he was also a kind of scholar with a research library of 300 shelf feet, more extensive than anyone might imagine.
Of course there were piles of classic porn, memoirs of Casanova, the complete Marquis de Sade, many studies of torture through the ages .But there were also tomes on food, dress—especially underwear, geography, sorcery, medicine and poison, books on ancient Greece and Rome and the Mongols, religion, war and weapons, psychology, legend and mythology, Whenever, wherever he set a porn novel, he wanted to get the details right!
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.