Augusten Burroughs, a high school dropout with a childhood that would leave even the most hardened therapist in the fetal position, escaped the insanity of his Massachusetts youth by scoring a job with a major New York advertising agency at the embryonic age of 19. By 24, the king of ad-firm smart-asses was handling national accounts, pulling in a huge salary, and aggressively drinking himself into oblivion.
Last year, Burroughs’ blisteringly funny and critically acclaimed memoir, Running With Scissors, shocked and awed readers with the account of his crazy mother, who turned over the care of her then 13-year-old son to her equally insane psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. The book was something of a phenomenon, with Burroughs becoming the poster boy for putting the fun in dysfunctional, while accumulating glowing reviews from Maxine Kumin and The New York Times, among others. Rather than making Running With Scissors a bitter attack on the people who left him an emotional cripple (including a physically abusive, pederast boyfriend 20 years his senior), Burroughs points out that growing up with unstructured nut jobs could be a blast, or at the very least pretty amusing.
In Dry, Burroughs’ second book, the author is now all grown up, at least physically, but his quick wit and natural talent for papering over embarrassing realities has finally begun to fail him, thanks to plus-sized martinis, numerous shots of Cuervo and the 300 empty bottles of Scotch lined up in his studio apartment. After he shows up to one too many client meetings late and drunk, his co-workers stage an intervention, telling Burroughs he’s heading to Minnesota’s Proud Institute, a detox joint specifically designed for gays. “A rehab facility run by fags will be hip,” he writes hopefully. “Plus there’s the possibility of good music and sex.”
Turns out there are neither. Like any self-respecting drunk on the eve of a forced rehab stay, Burroughs goes on a bender with his funeral-director bar-hopping buddy, and calls his one sober friend, affectionately named Pighead, to tell him the bad news. Pighead is delighted, telling Burroughs, “You don’t get silly and put a lampshade on your head or say witty, philosophical things. You get foul, dark and ugly.”
Writing about recovery is tricky business, no matter how funny you are or how strong your command of witty pop-cultural references. Burroughs gives it a go, making fun of A.A.-speak while deconstructing with clinical fascination the sad alcoholics all around him at the Proud Institute. But eventually, the saccharine sentimentality of recovery gets in his way, and the fun-loving-drunk moments that work best in the book come to a regrettable end. The beauty of Running With Scissors was the unflinching portraits of the menagerie of characters that molded Burroughs’ childhood, whether it was his psoriasis-covered father or his surrogate Finch sister Natalie, who also dated men decades her senior. But not one of the characters in Dry gets the respect they deserve. Perhaps Burroughs is protecting himself, not allowing for complete pictures of what these relationships meant to him, and not copping to how much he’s lost in the long run. Despite Burroughs’ great effort and formidable talent, he appears to have a few more steps to go before reaching recovery.
DRY: A Memoir | By AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS | St. Martin’s Press | 293 pages | $24.95 hardcover