An acerbic and multilayered debut novel satirizing reality television, drug-rehab memoirs, and academia.
Framed as a memoir written by the drug-addicted reality TV protagonist Ronald Reagan Middleton—as annotated by a Ph.D. candidate named Harold Swanger—Gwin's novel follows Ronald after his wealthy New Jersey family disowns him out of frustration with his abusive behavior. He gets caught up in the underworld of the Southern drug trade and is eventually arrested and imprisoned for the murder of another addict. Encouraged by an MFA student named Sophia, he begins to write the story of his life but is suddenly released from prison in return for an agreement to enter a rehabilitation facility in New Jersey called Rose-Thorn Recovery Center. The center's ominous name ends up being prescient: Rose-Thorn is not just a rehab clinic, but the site of a reality television experiment called Clean Time, in which drug addicts “compete for the right to stay in treatment based on their popularity.” What follows is a bizarre, gonzo exploration of America's obsession with reality TV and redemption narratives. Pieced together via fragments of Ronald's memoir, excerpts from the Clean Time script, interviews with Sophia and the villainous television producer Margaret Turner, and commentary by Swanger, the novel is dizzying in its formal experimentation. Unfortunately, the novel's logic is opaque and mostly results in a number of characters and storylines disappearing in the middle. The unconventional form also highlights the novel's lack of a plot. It doesn't help that the satire—especially when it targets academic writing programs—is less biting than bitter. Characters like "White Reggie," a poet and self-proclaimed feminist conducting ethnographic research on the working class so he can write about them, after having inherited “a couple million bucks from his dead uncle,” just about sum up the novel's disdain for MFA culture when he says, “Honestly, bro, I try to avoid MFA students. Bunch of suburban kids trying to sound edgy.” It's too bad the humor doesn't comment on such hypocrisy so much as merely observe its existence.
An ambitious and unorthodox novel whose humor misses the mark.