Alienation from popular culture, institutional education, mainstream electoral politics, the mass media — it’s all deadly serious stuff. Ask any of those hundreds of misfits who move to the Bay Area every year in hopes of finding the one metropolis in the world even tolerably in line with their ideals.
But for many less fortunate souls, estrangement from even the most basic pillars of social support — family, relationships, outlets for creative expression — runs too deep for even a new skyline to cure. Deep enough that buying some offbeat CDs, renting a cult video, doing a poetry reading, or joining an antiwar demonstration just don’t appeal as coping mechanisms anymore. But even if the only coping mechanism that does appeal lies at the bottom of a bottle, this doesn’t mean some of these folks won’t eventually manage to channel it into a form of artistic expression all the same.
Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Dry and Phil Robinson’s novel Charlie Big Potatoes are two quite different documents of the alienation that drives some to abject alcoholism, but they’re not Under the Volcano revisited. This is the 21st century, and literary tales of struggles with the sauce don’t always have to end with an agonizingly slow mock-heroic death. More and more often, the protagonists of such stories end up in rehab centers, and their real battle isn’t with booze, but with readjusting after rejoining the straight world. Meanwhile, the authors’ real challenge is to hold the attention of readers who have little or no firsthand experience of this harrowing journey. How to translate those lost weekends into terms the perpetually sober — not to mention the merrily well-adjusted — can even begin to comprehend?
In that quest, Burroughs succeeds admirably, for the most part, while Robinson’s insights are more sporadic and less compelling.
Burroughs had a best-seller last year with another memoir, Running with Scissors, which recounted his childhood in the home of a twisted psychiatrist and is now new in paperback. Dry recalls Burroughs’ experiences over a decade, though it’s something of a novelization with changed names, combined characters, and “imaginative re-creation” (according to his own author’s note) of some episodes.
Burroughs is an unlikable lead man, and his first few pages brace you for a trip through the hell of insensate barfly denial. Almost immediately, though, the story gets hijacked by an “intervention,” and the young Manhattan advertising hotshot finds himself in a Minnesota rehab center almost before he knows it. To his surprise — and the reader’s — the center works, counter to his justified skepticism about some of its touchy-feely methodology.
More than half of Dry, however, is devoted not to its author’s descent into darkness or his apparently successful turnaround, but his readjustment to life back in New York. Burroughs’ bloodstream might be clean, but there’s no escape from reminders of what drove him to drink in the first place — a filthy apartment crammed with several hundred empty bottles he was too sozzled to dispose of, an ex-lover dying of AIDS, a crass day job with snippy colleagues (his first assignment on the day back: a German beer account). And there are new complications: the pressure to attend AA meetings and group therapy to ward off backsliding, and a new lover with an even worse habit.
Burroughs might have a slimy job and some slimy friends, but we find ourselves rooting for him, if only because he tells his story with such keen self-awareness and gallows humor, becoming a fortress of strength in the face of considerable temptation. Which makes his unexpected plunge back into the realm of his demons near the end of the book as much of a sucker punch to the reader’s gut as it must be to the innumerable ex-addicts who lapse despite the best of intentions. Burroughs manages ultimately to redeem himself to a large degree, but it’s only the capper on a cautionary tale of the never-ending post-tightrope rehab, even for those of us lucky enough never to have been sucked into substance abuse.
If Dry has any major flaw at all, it’s that Burroughs doesn’t offer a totally clear picture of the alienation that drove him to such severe abuse in the first place. Readers of Running with Scissors know the drill, so perhaps the earlier book should be taken as an aperitif, pardon the metaphor. Dry offers glimpses of an abusive childhood, and Burroughs’ advertising job seems almost enough to drive anyone to drink. He carps about his workplace with entertaining sarcasm, yet there seems little realization that selling products no one needs, no matter how highly one is paid, might stifle creativity that could direct the writer’s energies to a more fulfilling direction.
Still, he’s more self-aware than Charlie Big Potatoes‘ antihero Charlie Marshall, who’s stuck in a vaguely hip London magazine job which he systematically pisses away. We don’t learn too much about what’s propelling him toward massive fucked-upness, other than an eccentric family life that doesn’t seem too out of line from the usual mildly dysfunctional nuclear unit. Be that as it may, his alcohol and drug use culminates in his collapse at the altar of his own wedding ceremony 36 pages into the novel. Then it’s off to the rehab center with him as well, a center from which Charlie emerges more or less clean, though not as profoundly changed as his nonfictional counterpart, Burroughs.
This book’s narrative is far more jocular than Dry‘s, and far more fractured in its back-and-forth temporal dislocation and fragmentary descriptions of blackouts and partying. In that sense, it might actually be a more accurate reflection of the fuzzy worldview of an alcoholic who can’t see the forest for the trees. Yet it’s far less insightful than Dry, and — more surprisingly — considerably less entertaining as a read, despite much semicomic larking both in and out of the rehab center. It’s hip enough so that Charlie makes a passing reference to the Strokes during casual conversation, and the rehab sessions are like something of an ongoing muted Monty Python sketch riffing on the peculiarities of the inmates and the bumbling ineptitude of their overseers. The whole rehab process isn’t totally treated like a joke, but the reader is led to wonder whether it has made a lasting impact upon our antihero. Not every rehab program works wonders, naturally. But Charlie simply isn’t as interesting a character as Burroughs, and the reader is torn between hoping he’ll ditch his hopeless buffoon drinking buddy and thinking that’s the company he really deserves.
It’s a triumph, nonetheless, for literature dealing frankly with rehab — a venue that is regularly splashed all over tabloid celebrity mags but often kept hush-hush in real life — to poke its brave head into the daylight in the first place. For an alternate reading experience, the story of a creative substance abuser who never found a way out, try Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. Compiled by Crash cohort Brendan Mullen with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey, it’s an oral history of the early Los Angeles punk band’s lead singer, who died of a deliberate overdose at the age of 22 in 1980. Rehab was a rarely discussed option in those days, and this book is a depressing if often absorbing testament to the opportunities and many years lost not only by Crash, but also by many other alienated scenesters in the LA punk community. For Burroughs and Robinson, there is a way out, albeit a problematic and fragmentary one. And that’s progress. Sort of.