Augusten Burroughs, of all people, should know intimately that the crucial tenet of battling alcoholism is resisting the urge to use the strengths of others as a crutch. Truth and power come from within; while seeking support is a noble step to recovery, ultimately no one is responsible for your success more than you are.
So why, then, does every page of Burroughs' latest wit-draped memoir read as if its writer has mysteriously skipped town, replaced by the literary template of a David Sedaris best-seller?
In his previous memoirs, "Running With Scissors" and "Dry," Burroughs' caustic wit and sardonic storytelling took a back seat to more literary devices: Why did an unhealthy mother leave her son to live with her psychiatrist, whose household was less fit than the Osbournes' on heroin? Where did this young New York advertising executive find the courage to admit to an addiction that, if nothing else, explains his family's insanity growing up? What is it really like being young, gay and sexually active in New York City?
It's clear from the first chapter in "Magical Thinking," entitled "Commercial Break," that Burroughs is no Sedaris. He's no Hank Stuever. He's no David Rakoff. He's hardly even himself. He takes up far too many pages without proposing a single unique insight -- a poor first impression for a memoirist.
"Magical Thinking" is a tale told in two eras: P.B. and W.B. Pre-boyfriend and with-boyfriend. Dennis is his name, and until Augusten gets to the current love-of-his-life, around the middle at page 143, we're privy to fascinating tales of mouth surgery, cadavers, boyhood crushes, runway modeling, transsexuals, rats and sex with priests.
Though that last one stands as the dire exception, Burroughs is hardly raunchy in these mild exploits. In "I Dated an Undertaker," he recounts the time he . . . dated an undertaker. In "The Rat/Thing," we read how he killed . . . a rat. Or so he would like us to think. In almost every chapter of the book's first half -- Dennis occupies most of the second act -- we're set up for yet another riotously hilarious insight about the social ineptitude of East Side rodents; or how it is so hard to find good help these days.
Thankfully, this downturn affects only most of the book, not all of it.
"Debby's Requirements," in which the cleaning lady from hell's lowest depths wreaks havoc on Burroughs' studio apartment, is pretty darn funny. Burroughs recalls the first time he set his judgmental eyes on the short, stern Mrs. Clean: "While not technically a dwarf, the top of her head was level with my nipples. . . . She had a powerful build, like a compact pit bull."
Debby terrorizes her new client's casual nature with a laundry list of requirements -- money for supplies, money for going to get the supplies, money for using the supplies, money for putting the supplies away when finished. So she's thorough, he assumes. Eventually, of course, she turns out to be the Bride of Chuckie, leaving watermarks on the windows, stealing his Chinese takeout, lying about it, overcharging him for undocumented labor and eventually suing him for theft.
Now these are the stories we want. The out-of-this-world, too-good-to-be-true tales of the downtrodden West Village homosexual who not only can't sustain a healthy relationship with his mother (remember, she gave him away to her psychiatrist?) but falls prey to a housecleaner from hell and lives to write about it.
I can't help but to cringe at the notion that Burroughs finds these "true stories" anything more than just that: ordinary occurrences. What made his previous memoirs glow were situations and circumstances so extraordinary they practically wrote themselves. What makes "Magical Thinking" unlike similar works by Burroughs' contemporaries, most notably it-boy Sedaris, is his occasional disregard for novelty. Yes, New York City has rats, and yes, they're gross and disgusting. Do they really require nine pages of juicy details?
It's not enough for Burroughs to brand himself another trendy thirtysomething New York gay writer and assume he's automatically profitable. Surely not every moment of every day of Burroughs' life is profound.
Ultimately, a glimmer of hope supersedes the banality of the first half's randomness. And fortunately, it's due to a happy topic: love. Dennis is the man that almost got away; the man Augusten never thought he could have; the man whose "air I breathe," Augusten gushes. "My Last First Date" is awfully sweet, as you'd expect it to be: "Dennis' superior mental health was obvious from the first date, like a cleft palate."
From this point on, it's all about Dennis. Doesn't Dennis look cute in that shirt? Don't Dennis's muscular legs look sexy? Isn't Dennis' smile just dreamy?
Honestly, if Dennis weren't so apparently God-like, I wouldn't mind hearing everything about him.
We can't blame Burroughs for writing "Magical Thinking: True Stories," a mishmash of idiosyncratic moments. We can only wonder who stole the brilliant essayist whose insane childhood and alcoholism inspired such magical moments in previous works.
By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $23.95
Benjamin Siegel is a frequent News reviewer.