[13 August 2003]
To find the good life, you must become yourself.
Dr. Bill Jackson
The author of best-selling Running With Scissors is back with the next installment of his surreal memoir, only this time the boy who was obsessed with Bewitched is forced into rehab after a love affair with Dewars. Unlike Running With Scissors, Dry ushers in more real sentiment and less quirks. The narrator has grown up, but hasn’t lost his cynicism, dark humor or fallibility—thank goodness.
Fans of the first book may be surprised to find out that Burroughs actually wrote Dry first, although it was published second in this ongoing memoir series. This time, the story takes Augusten through hazy years in Manhattan after he scored a $200,000-plus job with an advertising agency against the odds. Previously, he worked at a steakhouse, and seemed to make a career out of smoking pot and drinking beer in small town U.S.A. more than polishing skills that one might assume necessary to hit the big time. However, with imagination very much intact (and marketable), the author ends up creating accounts for dozens of well-known brands as he becomes a professional siren who makes no secret of loving the martinis. And while the book delves less into the ins and outs of cutthroat advertising, it does scoop the personalities therein, ranging from an uptight female creative partner to undermining professional adversary. It also welcomes glimpses into Augusten’s drinking buddies and what at first seems like harmless fun (like the time he got drunk and sang the theme to The Brady Bunch at karaoke before passing out). His amusing account is characteristic of many subtle references (the man, after all, is obsessed with popular culture that’s high and low), including his account of rehab being like the movie Groundhog Day: “It’s an endless loop.”
In true Augusten style, the author is the last guy to admit that he has a drinking problem. It’s only until the higher powers at work force him into a gay Midwestern rehab center that the author negotiates his way around cultish group therapy and fellow drug addicts, only to end up back in Manhattan refitting his life into a clean apartment and the new beer account he must work on in the office. Ironic? Of course.
From this point, the book becomes even more interesting, as the reader follows Augusten through the temptations of sobriety, handsome crack addicts and British freeloaders who end up becoming, well, friends. The real meat of the book also relies later on the relationship between Augusten and HIV-positive Pighead. It’s through this sometimes underestimated pairing that the reader understands both the author’s own denial of major life-altering events, as well as his refusal to confront responsibility head on, despite his own bemoaning about love, distraction and gin-soaked olives. This character flaw is precisely what makes the narrator, first, so honest, and second, so human. Coupling that with his straight thinking (as he nicknames rehab buddies Pregnant Paul or counts the bottles of Scotch in his apartment), Augusten Burroughs writes himself not only as a real figure for whom there is compassion, but also successfully in the tradition of literary legends like Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor. If anything, he proves that it is also possible to reinvent oneself. And you don’t have to be a fiction writer to do it.
Burroughs said, “Nobody has to be stuck with the life they have if they don’t like it. You can make very dramatic changes and it can all turn out ok. I also hope the book shows how the results are always better when you stop skating across the surface of your life and really go inside and dig around for the good stuff.”
One doesn’t have to dig very far to find the good stuff in Dry. It has all the ingredients of a “good” book: humor, fallibility, conflict, cynicism, fear, lust, creativity, and obstacles. And these are only some of the qualities of the narrator alone. The other characters are not to be underestimated. For instance, though Pighead only plays a marginal role as far as appearing in the book, he is probably one of the most important characters in that the reader learns most about Augusten, not as a result of his own stint in rehab, but in regards to how he inevitable accepts Pighead into his life. Others, like that of “Serena,” the crack-addicted prostitute with the surprisingly clean apartment and warnings, Jim, the alcoholic undertaker, as well as Foster, the eye candy/love interest, all do the job of deconstructing Augusten’s many layers, whether party boy, gay man, best friend or patient.
One of his most stunning and heartfelt passages came as a much needed surprise. Prior to this, he had never exposed his Achilles heal when describing loss of a friend:
“Now I can remove your number from speed dial on my phone. I can forget your birthday. I don’t have to put rubber gloves on and inject you with medication. I don’t have to worry about getting stuck with a needle. Or fill your humidifier. Or change the light bulb in the kitchen. Or answer the front door. I don’t have to wonder how long you’ll live. I don’t have to tell you I can’t see you today. I don’t have to ever put more ice in your glass or pick up hot dog buns on the way to your apartment.”
But above all the tragedy that Dry isn’t afraid to unfurl, Burroughs also added, “I wanted to show people that just because you stop drinking does not mean you stop being crazy and funny.”
Examples: shiny chest hair on the boy named Kavi in rehab (a sexual addict, he finds out); ping-pong; four variations for a German beer campaign that doesn’t allude to Hitler; hoping that rehab looks like an Ian Schrager hotel; and Cosmopolitans.
Between the humor and frustration, luckily for Burroughs, it worked.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dry-a-memoir/