There is a long tradition of advertising copywriters who become authors of cultural significance, from Carl Sandburg to Don DeLillo to Fay Weldon to Salman Rushdie. A new addition to this roster is Augusten Burroughs, who first emerged with 2000’s satirical novel ”Sellevision” and more spectacularly with last year’s best-selling ”Running With Scissors,” a memoir utterly devoid of self-pity that detailed his bizarre childhood growing up in the care of his narcissistic mother’s crazy shrink and his encounter with a pedophile who essentially became his lover.
Burroughs’ new autobiography, Dry, offers an even more complex moral ambiguity. Exploring the alcoholism that threatens to derail his success as a hotshot young New York adman, he is no longer victim but villain, so in thrall to booze that he shirks work and allows his best friend, whom he dubs Pighead, to face the terrifying specter of AIDS alone, ignoring his calls in favor of nights getting wasted with strangers. ”The watch reads 4:15 a.m.,” he writes after one such binge. ”Impossible. I wonder aloud why it is displaying the time in Europe instead of Manhattan.”
After his colleagues lead an intervention — he recounts one oleaginous sidekick looking ”at me with such sincere concern and compassion that I want to harm him with a stick” — the inveterate bon viveur is packed away to the Proud Institute, a gay rehab center in Minnesota. There, he faces affirmations, sad sacks, and a group sing-along celebrating ”Monkey Wonkey and Blue Blue Kitten,” recovery mascots who love each other and want to be his friend, too. Burroughs’ response: ”Why a song about codependent stuffed animals?”
But with the support of similarly minded smart-aleck addicts, his 30-day stay ends in success. Maintaining his sobriety in the real world, though, proves challenging. Back at work, he’s assigned a huge German beer campaign. (A coworker tries to reassure him, ”But beer isn’t alcohol. It’s just…beer. I mean, right?”) He also meets Foster, a relapse-bound druggie from his local AA meetings, to whom he is instantly addicted.
”Dry” is a stylish memoir about a messy life. Burroughs astutely links alcoholism and advertising, both of which require an ability to romanticize emptiness. Given that a 30-second ad consists of approximately 70 words, relentlessly honed, it’s little surprise that Burroughs’ prose, like Weldon’s, has focus and economy. And yet, when it comes to the book’s heart — Pighead — something is missing. Though the author’s pain at his friend’s eventual passing is palpable, we never really get to know the man because Burroughs spends the majority of the book avoiding him.
As the story progresses, it becomes harder to read about the self-destructiveness of the author’s alcoholism, placed next to the ravages of AIDS, without wanting to shake him. Thankfully, Burroughs shakes himself (and the book) just in time.