MY FATHER grew up in a log cabin near Taylorsville, Kentucky. The house had twelve-inch walls with gun ports to defend against attackers, first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At age twelve, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method—find it and land on it—using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. He eventually wrote and published more than four hundred books under eighteen different names. His novels included six science fiction, twenty-four fantasy, and one thriller. The rest was pornography.
When I was nine, Dad gave me his childhood copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The old hardback was tattered, the boards held by fraying strips of fabric, the pages pliant and soft. It is a coming-of-age narrative about thirteen-year-old Jim Hawkins, who discovers a secret map, leaves England, and returns with a large share of pirate treasure. I loved the fast-paced story and the bravery of young Jim.
On paper cut from a brown grocery sack, I carefully drew an island with a coastline, water, and palm trees. A dotted line led to a large red X. My mother suggested I show the map to my father. Dad wiped coffee on the paper and wadded it up several times, which made it seem older. He used matches to ignite the edges of the map, then quickly extinguished the flame. This produced a charred and ragged border that enhanced the map’s appearance, as if it had barely survived destruction. Because of the fire involved, we were alone outside, away from my younger siblings. Dad was selling insurance at the time, rarely home, his attention always focused elsewhere. I enjoyed the sense of closeness, a shared project.
Dad said that he drew maps for most of the books he wrote, and I resolved that if I ever published a book, I’d include a map. Twenty years later I did. In 1990 I called my father with the news that Vintage Contemporaries was publishing Kentucky Straight, my first book. A long silence ensued as Dad digested the information.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I didn’t know I’d given you a childhood terrible enough to make you a writer.”
His own father wrote short stories in the 1920s. During the Depression, my grandfather was forced to abandon his literary ambitions to save the family farm and pursue a more practical education in engineering. He died young, a year before my father published his first story. Dad never knew what it was like to have a proud father and didn’t know how to be one himself.
After the publication of Kentucky Straight, people began asking Dad what he thought of my success. Buried in the question was the implication that the son had outdone the father. My work was regarded as serious literature, whereas he wrote porn and science fiction. Twice I witnessed someone insinuate that Dad should be envious. Invariably my father had the same response. His favorite adventure novel was The Three Musketeers, in which young D’Artagnan wins respect through his magnificent swordplay, taught to him by his father. Every time someone asked Dad about my success as a writer, he said he was happy to be D’Artagnan’s sword master, voicing pride in my accomplishments but taking credit for them, as well. It was as close as he ever came to telling me how he felt about my work.
My Father, the Pornographer
“Chris Offutt owns one of the finest, surest prose styles around, ready and able to convey the hardest truth without flinching. Now Offutt enters the darkest and most mysterious of places—the cave of a monstrous enigma named Andrew J. Offutt—armed with nothing but his own restless curiosity. Spoiler alert: He makes it out alive, walking into the daylight to bring us a deeper, funnier, more tender and more heartbroken truth—and his masterpiece.” —Michael Chabon
When Andrew Offutt died, his son, Chris, inherited a desk, a rifle, and eighteen hundred pounds of pornographic fiction. Andrew had been considered the “king of twentieth-century smut,” with a writing career that began as a strategy to pay for his son’s orthodontic needs and soon took on a life of its own, peaking during the 1970s when the commercial popularity of the erotic novel reached its height.
With his dutiful wife serving as typist, Andrew wrote from their home in the Kentucky hills, locked away in an office no one dared intrude upon. In this fashion he wrote more than four hundred novels, including pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn. The more he wrote, the more intense his ambition became and the more difficult it was for his children to be part of his world.
Over the long summer of 2013, Chris returned to his hometown to help his widowed mother move out of his childhood home. As he began to examine his father’s manuscripts and memorabilia, journals, and letters, he realized he finally had an opportunity to gain insight into the difficult, mercurial, sometimes cruel man he’d loved and feared in equal measure. Only in his father’s absence could he truly make sense of the man and his legacy.
In My Father, the Pornographer, Offutt takes us on the journey with him, reading his father’s prodigious literary output as both a critic and as a son seeking answers. This is a book about the life of a working writer who supports his family solely by the output of his typewriter; it’s about the awful psychic burdens one generation unthinkingly passes along to the next; and it’s about growing up in the Appalachian hills with a pack of fearless boys riding bicycles through the woods, happy and free.
- Atria Books |
- 272 pages |
- ISBN 9781501112461 |
- February 2016