When the bottom falls out

Dry: A Memoir
By Augusten Burroughs
(St. Martin's Press, 289 pages, $24.95)

You smell of booze. Layers of greasy-spoon breakfasting, BreathAsure tablets, distracting clothing and even Donna Karan for Men applied lovingly to your tongue can't disguise last night's 4 a.m. mantra of, "What am I going to do?" with regards to the megalomaniacal clientele expecting your advertising genius at a Manhattan Faberge Egg exposition at 10 a.m.

Such was the world of best-selling author Augusten Burroughs prior to his new-boy acclaim on the publishing circuit, now rife with witty memoirs of men with cockeyed failures to share. His first book, "Running With Scissors" -- a disturbingly hilarious account of a childhood of dog-food eating, maternal abandonment, mental abuse and statutory rape by a 35-year-old man -- raced to No. 5 on The New York Times best-seller list last year. Oddly.

"Dry," his second memoir, is appropriate as its sequel, an even more disturbing, if less insane, account of the trouble we create to make chaos seem comfortable. Dry details Burroughs' 20s as an advertising exec on the slippery slope to personal hell. It's a rehab memoir in the most uncommon sense -- a burgeoning genre, apparently, with James Frey's well-publicized "A Million Little Pieces" making similar waves earlier this year. It seeks to set the record straight about those fabled 12 steps as they might (or might not) apply to life in a modern age. And, if you can believe it, it's very funny. And very sad.

"I actually started "Dry" before I wrote "Running With Scissors," says Burroughs, on the phone from his home in New York. "I started "Dry" the day I got out of rehab. Now, at that point, I wasn't a 'writer with a capital W,' I was just a guy who got out of rehab.

"And all of a sudden, I had all of this time on my hands, and I wasn't used to all of this time, and I wasn't drinking, so I thought, 'Well, what am I going to do?' And I just started to write every day, just to sort of navigate myself through my life. That's really what "Dry" is. "Dry" is my journal, basically."

That journal details one man's descent from "just do it" accolades to an office intervention that eventually sees him doing his 30 days at a gay rehab clinic. He finds his way through AA wittily and poignantly assessing the real value of people counting days and relapses.

"What people need to realize about AA in general is that you don't have to believe any of it, you can totally think it's corny," he says. "But early in your sobriety, the good thing about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it's just a room full of people who used to drink and aren't drinking now. You immediately have something in common with a number of people."

But then Burroughs meets his own relapses -- severe relapses -- upon the hasty descent of his ex-lover (affectionately nicknamed Pighead) into AIDS -- a descent he clearly couldn't deal with.

"Putting things behind you is always easier. I'm not sure that it's always the best thing. For example, with Pighead, I had to go back and look at it, because I didn't look at it when it was happening ... I could not face what was happening at all. And I also had to come to terms with the fact that I behaved really terribly in the face of this guy's death."

Changing diapers on the man that you abandoned is enough to drive anyone to drink, to be sure. But even that comfort was lost on a man who had already dealt with his habits, but maybe not yet dealt completely with himself.

"I think the interesting thing about "Dry" is that, in "Running With Scissors," I was a kid, and I was just thrown into this horrible chaos and insanity and squalor, emotional and physical, and, yeah, I retained my sense of humor intact," he says. "But when I became an adult, I really re-created that sort of level of chaos and dysfunction for myself -- not on purpose, but I really didn't know any other way. I had always been in a state of chaos and disaster; those were sort of the life skills, if you will -- survive under the worst circumstances. So what I did was I created the worst circumstances for myself."

As bad as scoring crack and having to pick up a prostitute to show you how to smoke it.

"I can remember being really drunk and thinking, 'How did I get here?' Like when I was in the South Bronx smoking crack. There were times when I would just get back from a situation, and I'd be thinking, 'What am I doing? Why am I here?' So I had that sort of perspective even then."

And advertising didn't help.

"Drinking and advertising go hand in hand, because it's all about deception and emptiness," says Burroughs. "You know there are definitely talented people in advertising, and in a way, there's an artistic, creative side to it. But, you know what? That's on a handful of advertising accounts at one or two shops in the country. Otherwise it's just a pool of steaming shit."

Now off the advertising and hooch, Burroughs has risen to a stature he never could have predicted, with "Running With Scissors" now being optioned as a film (to star, perfectly, Julianne Moore) and already another book in the wings for next summer -- "Magical Thinking: True Stories" (which is not another memoir, says Burroughs, but a collection of disconnected essays of dark humor). Things, as they say, couldn't be better.

"I thought being sober would be the end of my life, like, OK, I might as well just go retire and live in an assisted-living complex," says Burroughs. "But it's just absolutely not the case at all. It's a lot more fun now. I always thought, 'I've got to drink to be a writer.' But you're a writer anyway.

"It's a miracle I could write anything and drink at the same time."

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