A latter-day Thomas De Quincey who began “eating” when he was nine writes powerfully if repetitively about how drugs and alcohol destroyed his family and severely damaged him.
Novelist Brown (Lucky Town, 1994, etc.) here arranges in a broken chronology some previously published pieces and a few fresh ones, all of which are confessional and self-flagellant. The author drinks too much, snorts too much coke, smokes too much crack, fails to honor too many commitments; he steals and lies to his friends, to his wife, to his family, to—don’t be alarmed—himself! Hung over, Brown tries to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to undergraduates, who see right through him. He torments a pet pig he bought after a binge to dulcify his bitter wife; he’s annoyed because the porker acts, well, like a pig. He tries AA but is put off by too-patent piety. Brown’s brother and sister are both addicts and both commit suicide (he shoots himself, she leaps from a bridge); the writer crafts for each of them a very strong essay, imagining the moment of suicide in some of his loveliest, most wrenching prose. Brown’s mother was also an addict, and he recalls the time when, carrying along five-year-old James for a night out with Mommy, she torched an apartment building. An old woman died in the fire, but the cops had insufficient evidence to convict, so Mommy went away for tax evasion instead. (She had been surreptitiously selling family property to support her habits.) The Browns are no Cleavers, but their sorrows are delineated in captivating language. Brown knows the puissance of the present tense, effectively uses the second person (in the essay on his sister), crafts some heart-breaking sentences, and generally makes you want simultaneously to slap and embrace him.
Well-written and unspeakably sad, though often predictable.