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Drinking poison

Recovery memoir is addictive



Augusten Burroughs' darkly comic memoir Running With Scissors chronicles five years in the author's young life, starting when his mother gave him away to live with her psychotherapist, a collector of young boys and basket cases.

Readers came away from that book wondering what happened to the smart, twisted, funny boy. Dry, Burroughs' second memoir, answers that question. Though lacking a formal education, Augusten emerges at 19 to land a job in advertising in New York City. By the age of 24, he's drawing a six-figure salary, wearing Armani, courting accounts like Faberge, and mainlining booze.

Dry is essentially Burroughs' rehab story, beginning when his co-workers intervene and insist that he check himself into a residential treatment program and ending with his second recovery following the inevitable first relapse.

Like Running With Scissors, it reads like a really good stand-up comic routine -- dark, ironic, honest, touching and surprisingly funny given the subject matter.

Burroughs fancies rehab as 30 leisurely days off work, a spa month with facials and a lap pool where Robert Downey Jr. might appear. Instead, he ends up in a Midwestern cuckoo's nest, an all-gay alcohol rehab program with linoleum floors, paper slippers, the pervasive smell of bleach, bad cafeteria food, and sappy morning and evening affirmations.

Burroughs takes to sobriety with a can-do attitude and returns home to a new life of AA meetings, group therapy and Starbucks-aided clarity. He's appalled to find his apartment filled with 300 empty Dewar's bottles and a cloud of fruit flies, but the cleaning binge he embarks on reflects the direction of his new life -- clean and sober but still messy:

How could I have lived like that? How could I have not seen it? The problem is, I'm a slob to begin with. So when you combine alcohol with a slob, you just end up with something that would appall any self-respecting heroin-addicted vagrant.

Several subplots form the background to Burroughs' rehabilitation: his job at the advertising agency with neurotic team member Greer and a back-stabbing Mormon named Rick; his friendship with Pighead, a former banking executive now dying of AIDS; his unfortunate love affair with Foster, a recovering crack addict and a member of his therapy group.

By turns dramatic and slapstick, Dry treats the subject of alcoholism with respectful seriousness. One harrowing sequence describing Burroughs' near-death experience as the result of alcohol poisoning is graphic and powerfully cautionary, as are his descriptions of withdrawal:

I cannot walk across my apartment, even to pee. I must pee in bed, sober, not asleep. I must pee in bed because I am too sick to walk. When I stand, I become massively dizzy and begin to black out. My legs itch and I have caused them to bleed. My throat feels like it has narrowed. Like I have hives inside my throat now. They feel like hands around my neck.

Burroughs makes interesting connections between his chosen career of advertising and the task of "[making] everything seem better than it actually is" and his approach to dealing with the sordidness of his childhood: Always move forward, never look back. That his excessive drinking has anything to do with this race against himself remains a well-hidden fact until he finally begins to look at the consequences of his boozing and his perpetual running away -- powerful and pervasive loneliness.

Burroughs avoids sodden testimonials of self-loathing, making Dry an anomaly, a compulsively readable and enjoyable book on alcoholism and recovery.

-- Kathryn Eastburn



By Augusten Burroughs

(Alfred A. Knopf: New York)


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