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Wet Brain

Augusten Burroughs: calling the shots.




By Augusten Burroughs

St. Martin's Press, 293 pp., $24.95

othing could've topped the mess made of one man's boyhood as described in last summer's outrageous Running with Scissors, so this summer's follow-up memoir Dry doesn't try. Not that Augusten Burroughs, the author of both books, doesn't give it a shot, but Burroughs, let's face it, he knows it, is no kid anymore. When Dry opens, he's a 24-year-old member of an ad agency's successful creative team, operating very comfortably financially after waiting tables as a teenager at a Ground Round (making $9,000 a year), working, age 19, in New York City as a junior copywriter (making $17,000 a year), then, by Dry, dressed in Armani and Gucci but drinking himself to smithereens.

He should have seen it coming (too plastered?) or didn't want to see it coming ("I hate having feelings"). But we get to see it coming (and going and coming again) once Burroughs' agency pulls an intervention and he's forced into rehab (at $13,000 a week) then forced into "group" to chalk it all up to childhood. That self-described CDH (chemical-dependency history) reads:

"Age 7: Given NyQuil for cold. Grandfather is NyQuil salesman so we have cases of it. Green is favorite color so sometimes sneak sips. Age 12: First real drunk. One bottle of red wine. Threw up on friend's sheepdog. Ages 13-17: Smoke pot once a week. Drink alcohol maybe once a week. 18: Drink nightly, always to intoxication. Five drinks per night, + or -. 19-20: Drink maybe ten drinks per night, with occasional binges. Coke once every six months. 21 to present: A liter of Dewar's a night, often chased with cocktails. Cocaine once a month." (No mention, yet, of the 10 to 15 Benadryls Burroughs downs daily to counteract his allergy to alcohol.)

"When you look at what you've just written, what do you feel?" Burroughs' group leader asks. "I guess I drink a lot," Burroughs answers.

"A lot." Imagine a high-end bachelor pad at 10th and Fifth (half a hefty paycheck one month spent on an end table; a butter dish bought for 200 bucks), the contents of which included, at one low point, 300 one-liter empty bottles of scotch. Before the scotch, there was another low point: 1,452 empty bottles of beer -- domestic numbers to go with the evening out described in the opening pages of Dry: at the Cedar Tavern, five (or was it six?) Ketel One martinis; a jazz joint later, six (or was it five?) more Ketel Ones, plus a shot of Cuervo; and a karaoke bar later still somewhere in the West Village. The evening's total count? Burroughs doesn't know but does remember he's got a morning meeting with a client at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 9. The watch says 4:15 a.m. It's Tuesday. Or is it Wednesday?

And is this the worst of it? Not by a long shot, unless your idea of living following a month of rehab and months of AA is a snazzy apartment accented with a urine-soaked mattress, empty bags of crack, more empty bottles of booze, a plague of fruit flies (dead and alive), hallucinations on the ceiling plus a bad case of metastasizing hives to go with the near-comatose conditions of acute alcohol poisoning.

"Pighead" -- a millionaire mortgage banker and Burroughs' ex-boyfriend -- tries to help, but Pighead dies at 32 from AIDS. Burroughs' new love interest, Foster -- a millionaire with movie-star looks whose roommate is a "physically abusive alcoholic illegal alien from London" -- is an alcoholic/crack addict himself, a real case. Hayden -- the "British illegal alien crack addict alcoholic" whom Burroughs meets in rehab -- does become a steady influence in New York but goes off the wagon back in London, a real disappointment. Burroughs' boss, Greer, the woman who envies all this "free therapy" he's getting through AA, winds up taking a crash course in anger management and spouting self-help gibberish. Burroughs' father, who once sat his son in his lap then took a Marlboro and burned the boy between the eyes, is deep in denial. And Burroughs' mother, the woman who allowed her 13-year-old son to be raped repeatedly by the adopted adult son of Burroughs' insane legal guardians, is now in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed, still clueless.

There's a bright side to all this, though: a hooker who smokes Burroughs' crack and gives him one bit of advice: "You don't belong doing what you're doing." And Pighead, back from the grave with his own advice and with a mystery to add to Burroughs' cautionary tale:

"Augusten, do you know how you get when you drink? You get nasty. You don't get silly and put a lampshade on your head or say witty, philosophical things. You get foul, dark and ugly. I don't like you when you drink, not at all."

Nasty, foul, dark, ugly, yes, by turns. But unsilly, unwitty, ever? That'll be news to fans of Running with Scissors, sides of Burroughs that Burroughs in Dry isn't sharing. Why the hell not? We've read, put up with more than enough already. Or is he having to save something for another sure shot: memoir #3, summer 2004?

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