Updated: Jul 9, 2019
By Augusten Burroughs
"Sometimes when you work in advertising you'll get a product that's really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life..."
Those are the opening words of Augusten's memoir; the perfect analogy of how he feels about himself. Augusten has a love/hate relationship with his job, or rather he hates that it interferes with his drinking, he loves the kudos and the money though. His work partner hates that his drinking interferes with his job. His best friend, or rather, his best drinking partner is an undertaker who tells some florid stories. His best friend, or rather his 'one that got away' has AIDS. It's the 1990s, the outlook for him is heartwrenching, but Augusten is too preoccupied with his drinking to face up to anyone else's reality.
The first few chapters beautifully illustrate what a functioning alcoholic's life is like, their thoughts, their behaviours and the descent from functioning to barely functioning. It's hard not to wince at his behaviour, the senselessness nor the helplessness. It's hard not to cringe at the intervention - go to rehab or get fired. His employers have selected two, world famous top quality rehabs for him to chose from, but he opts for the Proud Institute - a rehab for gay addicts. He reasons it'll be good for the music and the sex.
This book is just like Marian Keyes' Rachel's Holiday, only more grown-up, more gritty and more real. It is, at times, belly laughingly funny, yet horrifying and a real tear jerker. If you've ever wondered what rehab is like (and I have) this book does not make it seem appealing at all. There's four classes a day, split across two days, rinse and repeat. There are teddies bears for company and there's a lot of shit food. The co-inmates are a bizarre lot but it does the job: Augusten accepts that him and alcohol are a bad mix.
The bulk of the book is concentrated on the ten months following his stint in rehab until his relapse. His life continues to deteriorate, he carries on making no meaningful changes to his life, except for not drinking. He acquires a fellow addict lodger, he begins a relationship with another addict. He stays in his job. And someone in his work is determined to have him fired for drinking, messing with his mind. It shines a spotlight on simply how hard it is to live without alcohol in a society obsessed with alcohol, working and being with people who are undoubtedly disgusted by the alcoholic.. He does all the 'right things' and makes all the 'right noises' but it's clear that Augusten remains as self-absorbed as ever throughout.
The book closes one year later. A much more resigned Augusten tells it like it is: he's become the walking, talking self-help book that a recovering addict does. He's no longer dry. He's now sober.
I found this book utterly gripping - in fact, on putting it down, I realised that my right bicep was frozen I'd been hooked on it for so long. Augusten is a tremendous writer - vivid, scathing, unapologically pointed. His feelings leak out page after page - you sort of want him to be your best friend, whilst simultanously whacking him over the head with a frying pan. It is like you are there, sometimes, observing him as he goes through this year of his life.
Unlike other chronologies I've read written by alcoholics, this one focuses on the harshless of life without the chemical fix, rather than the 'drunkologues' and the 'happy recovery ever after' that is the usual fodder. I was, however, hankering at the end for some sense of wholeness or completeness. I suppose the fact that he's still alive, a writer of several books, and no longer working in advertising tells me he found it. At least, I hope he has. I'd have no hesitation reading one of his other books...