Dry | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Even in his more earnest moments, Augusten Burroughs punctuates his thoughts with a silent yet resonant, "Whatever, Augusten" -- meaning he always manages to keep his life, both pre- and post-rehab for alcoholism, in perspective with a wit, I suppose, typical of a sharp twentysomething advertising executive living in Manhattan's "fast lane." After all, this is the author of Running with Scissors, a memoir about living in one of strangest households imaginable before being left, at age 13, in the care of his mother's psychiatrist -- after which he didn't attend school, scored free pills, and hung out with pedophiles, before escaping into the world of advertising. With no experience, he landed a job as a junior copywriter at 19, followed by a six-figure ad exec job by the time he was 24.

Until forced by his employer to attend a 30-day addiction rehabilitation program, Burroughs would prepare for his 9 a.m. client meetings by having twelve martinis instead of the single after-work cocktail he intended, stay out so late he'd have to get dressed for work before going to bed, and douse his tongue with cologne to hide the stench of gin -- a practice that had its limits, he would soon find. He'd bookend his days with full bottles of Dewar's, until his apartment was literally filled with three hundred empty liquor bottles. "So I drink a little too much," he tells his co-worker. "I'm in advertising. ... Look at Ogilvy. They've got a fucking bar in their cafeteria. You make it sound as if I'm some bum in the Bowery." Though he moves from day to day and ad campaign to ad campaign with seeming oblivion, when he's finally confronted, he acts as if he required very little urging to take another, deeper look at himself.

But this isn't really a story about the constant struggles of recovery -- or about self-realization: Burroughs makes it clear that he's survived by learning how to play the game, whatever it may be. He'll go to rehab if that's what it takes to keep his job, or more accurately, the sanctity of his safe, drunk life, and come back unscathed. In fact, he'll even go to the program of his choice -- what he imagines to be a health spa for gays, group therapy with Robert Downey, Jr., and cucumber sandwiches by the pool. Perhaps, he thinks, the rehab-vacation will give him time to catch up over the phone with his best friend Pighead, a former romantic interest who now lives with HIV.

Even when his dreams are dashed by the grim reality of paper hospital slippers and fluorescent lighting, Burroughs still seems to take it all in stride -- and displays enough remorse to make his transformation seem real. He picks up on the seemingly meaningless processes quickly, and even successfully maneuvers through the typically impenetrable jargon of therapy. In fact, Burroughs' strength lies in his ability to assign multiple meanings to ordinary language, to take the cadence of daily speech and make it poignant. He's charming to all who meet him, and he makes sure of it.

It's not until he returns to his advertising life that his alcohol addiction becomes a reality. At first, he doesn't start drinking; instead he religiously attends AA meetings -- until he doesn't have to, of course -- and even picks up some stray addicts in recovery (cute ones with various accents). He cleans his apartment, goes back to work, and appears to some people the poster boy for AA. Yet, for each step he takes forward, the motion rings untrue, as if he's still sinking deeper into his addiction despite not having had a drink in 90 days. It's not that it's easy for Burroughs (his interest in a hot Southern crack addict poses a challenge, as does the pressure of working on a major advertising campaign for beer); it's that he's still treating the symptoms, not the source of his problem.

That source is his trainwreck of a relationship with Pighead, whose physical state is a fiction for Burroughs until he can no longer ignore it. Unfortunately, Burroughs speeds through the relationship and its end so quickly that the reader isn't given a chance to care. And by running through it on cruise control, we hardly notice the connections between his involvement with Pighead and Burroughs' drinking, his dry spell, and a 10-month period in which he can only describe his highly altered sensory experiences. It's a blur, as I can imagine it was for Burroughs. And so, by the end of the book, we know more about the recovering alcoholic's quippy love of Starbucks than the root of his emotional struggle, and Burroughs makes us like him too much to remain indifferent.

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