Two of my favourite words in the English language are “free” and “book”, and when you put them together to make the phrase “free book” – they're even better! This year, I started the summer off with a huge pile of free books that I have been ploughing my way through. There’s one book, however, that I just kept shifting to the bottom of the pile each time it came up to the top, though. I looked at the title and picture on the front, and figured, “Huh, a book about a drunk.” Not really subject matter that interests me…
Anyway, last weekend I was reading a newspaper article about the author, Augusten X. Burroughs, who is being sued by his adoptive family. They claim he portrayed them unfairly and incorrectly in his book, ‘Running with Scissors’. A couple of days after reading this article, I happened to notice that the book I’d spent the summer shuffling to the bottom of the pile was actually Augusten Burrough’s other book, ‘Dry’. My bad! I started reading it immediately – and am sorry, so very sorry, that I hadn’t started it sooner.
In a word, it’s great. And, it’s also true. Burroughs wrote ‘Dry’ prior to ‘Running with Scissor’ but, for some reason, it was published after; it chronicles Burroughs’s life after he’d escaped the chaos of his adolescence – the experiences upon which he based ‘Running with Scissors’.
In ‘Dry’, Burroughs is in his mid-twenties and earning $200,000+ a year in advertising - despite being completely uneducated. He’s gay, his best friend is HIV positive and alcohol is interfering with his life; so much so that his employer stages an intervention and ships him off to rehab. In Minnesota. For a month.
The only way Burroughs can convince himself to go to rehab (because, of course, he’s NOT an alcoholic – oh no!), is to imagine what the hospital is like:
A discrete, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish compound surrounded mysteriously from public view by a tasteful wall of trimmed boxwood trees. Ian Schrager, of course, created the interior. Spare rooms, sun-drenched, with firm mattresses and white, 300-count Egyptian cotton sheets. … I imagine polished linoleum floors. (By allowing this one clinical detail into my fantasy, I believe I will be allowed all the other details I envision.) Nurses will be far too holistic and nurturing to wear white polyester; they will wear, perhaps, tailored hemp smocks and when they are backlit by one of the many floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lily pond, I will see the outline of their lean, athletic legs.
There will be a large pool. I will forgive its heavy chlorination. I will understand. This is a hospital, after all.
The reality, of course, is nothing like his advertising agency-inspired fictions – too bad for Augusten.
The book takes us through Burroughs’s stint in rehab, where he meets his roommate and new best friend, Hayden, and back to the “real” world as he’s released from rehab and attempts to create a new, alcohol-free life for himself, which involves cleaning out his liquor-bottle-filled apartment, signing up for group therapy, and joining AA. We see his struggles as he returns to work and tries to maintain his sobriety in spite of the pressures he encounters (including sabotage and the latest advertising account, which, ironically, is for a beer company). Likewise, Burroughs works hard to cope with his relationships: we see Pighead, his HIV positive former boyfriend; Hayden, his new roommate and rehab buddy, who tries to act as his conscience; and Foster, the gorgeous crackhead he meets in group therapy.
Burrough’s writing is so insightful, so humorous, so cynical it made me wish I was him, in spite of his flawed life. One of my favourite exchanges is when Hayden learns that Burroughs is becoming involved with Foster (a big no-no in group therapy):
“You’re at the crack addict’s apartment? Having a little sandwich?” he says. From the tone of his voice, you’d think I’d just told him I was hanging out at a playground wearing a NAMBLA T-shirt.
Now, when I read that, it made me pause for a moment: NAMBLA, I thought? Hmmm, sounds … familiar. And then it came to me: North American Man-Boy Love Association. Ha! Now, that’s funny! Anyone who can make gay pedophilia funny, well – he’s my guy! And why in the hell did I know that tidbit of information, anyway? I’m not gay – I’m not a man – or a boy – or even a vice cop! But Burroughs has a curious way of making you introspective, of making you look at your own life, your own relationships, your own issues, and thinking to yourself, this is not what it should be. Things can be better – much better.
This is a fantastically written book – certainly one of the best I’ve read this year. It made me want to go out and join AA myself – and I don’t even drink!