Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A (Belated) Review of "The Los Angeles Diaries"


A powerful—and true—memoir of addiction.

I’ll admit it: I don’t like drug memoirs. I didn’t like drug memoirs even before James Frey blew up the whole genre by telling a heartfelt story about addiction that turned out to be a tissue of lies.

But The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown transcends all that. I’ve never read a better true story about addiction. It’s also one of the best modern autobiographies I have ever read, addiction notwithstanding. In addition to having been an alcoholic and a meth head, James Brown is a very talented writer, the author of four novels, and it shows.

First published in 2003, The Los Angeles Diaries is a spare, utterly harrowing account of the author’s experience in a family marked by a history of virulent alcoholism. Brown’s unvarnished truth-telling about addiction is evident early on: “I know there’s no excuse for getting drunk when you’re supposed to be home with your family and I wish knowing this would stop me from doing it. I wish that’s all it took. That I could will it to happen. But it doesn’t work that way, it never has, and in my state of mind, at this particular moment, I can’t imagine living without it.”

While offering up memorable sketches of his boyhood in Los Angeles, Brown paints a devastating picture of the “denial and rage” that characterize full-blown addiction. He deals with the suicide of family members, divorce, the neglect of his children—all of it caused by addiction—without a shred of self-justification. It is, he writes, “a constant quest for more when there can never be enough.”

Interspersed throughout are the author’s mordantly funny adventures in the screen trade, as book after book is optioned for the movies, taken apart and ultimately scrapped before reaching the screen. However, we are never far from the author’s chilling revelation: “Never underestimate the power of denial.”

I can’t improve on the review that appeared in Washington Post Book World: “It’s the balance of agony and grace, of course, that makes life so ferociously interesting. Brown has perfectly captured that balance in his unpretentious, very profound book.”

Inspiring, witty, and bleak, all at the same time, James Brown’s book will appeal to anyone with an interest in addiction—and anyone who enjoys tough, spare prose.

2 comments:

jerry said...

Mr. Hanson, I look forward to reading "Los Angeles Diaries." I trust your always reasoned opinions on things pertaining to addiction and recovery. But I worry about yet another memoir about "full blown addiction" that reinforces the late-stage perspective: addiction is not really addiction until calamity visits, and that all alcoholics and addicts came from disastrous upbringings. I think "Drinking: A Love Story" by Caroline Knapp did an exceptional job describing earlier stage addiction - when the addict is still relatively high functioning and the apparent substance use is kept within more easily dismissible bounds. I'm very happy to hear more "low-bottom" stories in substance treatment and fellowship groups than I did 20 years ago. This is not to take anything away from Mr. Brown's book, but it's a sticking point for many high functioning addicted people and the clinicians who treat them. Jerry Januszewski

Dirk Hanson said...

"But I worry about yet another memoir about "full blown addiction" that reinforces the late-stage perspective: addiction is not really addiction until calamity visits, and that all alcoholics and addicts came from disastrous upbringings."
---------

I share your concerns, and it's one reason I have never been a major reader of this genre.

That's why James Brown's book came at me with such force--he deals with his own disastrous upbringings and subsequent calamities with an observant, dry, sometimes detached tone I've never really encountered before. It's as if Raymond Chandler had managed to write a piece of non-fiction about his own alcoholism. The guy's just a flat-out good writer. (Plus he's firm believer in addiction as a brain disease with genetic components.)

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