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Back on the wagon

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In his memoir, Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs told a ghastly tale of being adopted by his mother's psychiatrist, a man so neglectful that he overlooked the activities of his other adopted son, a 35-year-old pedophile who raped Burroughs at the age of 12. The author's ability to find humor in horror and to sustain hope through fantasies of a better life made the book both irresistible and unforgettable.

In the sequel, Dry (St. Martin's Press), the adult Burroughs finds his niche in advertising, a field that routinely improves upon reality and where his sordid past hardly matters.

"Ad people don't care where you came from, who your parents were," he writes. "You could have a crawl space under your kitchen filled with little girls' bones and as long as you can think up a better Chuck Wagon commercial, you're in."

There's no crawl space under his kitchen, but Burroughs' apartment is crammed with "dead bodies" -- 300 empty Dewar's bottles, testimony to his out-of-control drinking. When his company offers him a choice between unemployment and sobriety, Burroughs makes the smart choice. But who wants to spend 30 days in the stodgy old Betty Ford Clinic when you can go to gay rehab?

Burroughs fans will recognize the inevitable wishful thinking: "The guys will definitely have better bodies," he tells himself. He imagines a "discreet Frank Lloyd Wright-ish compound" with menu items like steamed local trout and seasonal field greens. It couldn't possibly turn out to be a gay man's nightmare of bad taste. And did they really mean he was supposed to quit drinking for good?

Not surprisingly, Dry sometimes reads as if Burroughs has nudged the story a little here and there to make everything come out well. The ending, poignant as it is, bears an uncanny resemblance to one of his fantasies -- about a mother he never had, a rehab he'll never enter and a love affair redeemed by a magical twist of fate. It's a world that simply doesn't exist. Then again, maybe this is how he survives to tell the tale. Lucky us.Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.



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