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Look up “dry ” in the thesaurus, and you will find almost fifty synonyms for the word. Dry as moistureless: barren, drained, juiceless, shriveled, thirsty. Dry as dull or uninteresting: blah, dreary, insipid, monotonous, plain. Dry as sarcastic: acerbic, biting, humorous, satirical, sly, tart. And Dry as taking the moisture from: dehydrate, deplete, exhaust, shrivel, wilt. In Augusten Burroughs’ new memoir Dry, every one of these definitions applies.
First, a caveat. Prior to the first page, Burroughs admits in an author’s note that he has changed names, combined and created characters, and compressed events. Therefore, this “memoir ” is not, in the strictest sense, true. For readers, this is either a welcome or a warning label. Burroughs is an advertiser and a salesman, a whipcrack, showoff writer. In the small print, though, he has quietly announced that Dry might be a slightly false bill of goods.
Dry‘s narrative begins while Burroughs is still drinking and follows his progression through intervention, rehabilitation and recovery. The descriptions of the rehab center (he expresses disappointment at the center’s ragged appearance after sharing his blissful vision of a sleek, Zen conservatory filled with handsome men, koi ponds and pedicures) and its denizens are dead-on. Character descriptions are dispatched with an acerbic, insiders’ whisper and an eye for moving detail. His humor is effective at making difficult situations readable — unfortunately, Burroughs resorts to humor and distancing tactics whenever the real issues of his deeper emotions threaten to poke through.
One gaping omission to the story of his rehabilitation from alcohol stands out: the actual experience of detoxification. And the Burroughs’ credulity is tested as well when, for what one must assume are purposes of dramatic excitement, he recounts being told he will be pitching beer within his first moments back on the job. The details fall into place a little too easily at times — remember, Burroughs is arranging his situations. Due to his need to style the story to his purposes and an unfortunate unwillingness to face the dark corners of alcoholism, the book sags about midway through. Just as Burroughs’ post-rehab anecdotes begin to wear, however, an old friend, Pighead, reenters the picture, and the narrative receives a much-needed emotional jolt.
Things do happen — gay readers will identify with the loss of both the social lubricant and the sense of fabulousness that low-lit rooms, tall, cold martini glasses and alcohol provide — and most events are delightfully told. The dawn of a new relationship (to a crack-addicted group therapy member so gorgeous that Burroughs’ descriptions literally make the mouth water) is beautifully sketched. One of the mantras of twelve step programs is that the addict should not undertake any major life changes in the first twelve months after having that last drink — Burroughs bends this rule almost to breaking.
The final chapters hold some real power and present some harrowing situations, and the last moments of the book seem very genuine. But Burroughs has written himself into a “dry ” corner. He uses advertiser’s language to great effect — there is almost no situation that cannot be summed up, summarized, and dispensed with in one pithy sentence or less.
Dry is, without a doubt, fun and easy to read. What’s sad though, is that there is a truly moving story here, told by and for gay readers in a way it probably hasn’t been told before. Burroughs, however, works so hard to skate over the ice of the book’s emotional heart that the reader is left on the surface looking in.