Millions of readers have spent hours enmeshed in the stories of Augusten Burroughs’s dysfunctional life in such books as “Running With Scissors,” “Dry,” and “A Wolf at the Table.” Now Burroughs wants to help you. Whether you have problems with love, work, self-esteem, addiction, or a host of other modern-day issues, Burroughs has the answers in his latest book, “This Is How.”
Burroughs admits that his life has been liberally seeded with mistakes, “[w]hich is exactly why I am equipped to write this book and tell you how to live.”
Fans of the author’s massively popular confessional memoirs will likely agree with that statement, and all of the wisdom he dispenses in his new book — delivered with the dark, acidic humor we’ve come to expect — is certainly well-earned.
In a series of short chapters — all of whose titles begin “How to. . .,” — Burroughs unfurls hundreds of brief, rapid-fire paragraphs designed to invigorate readers to take control of their lives. It’s tough love, Burroughs-style, drenched in hard-won insights and sharp-tongued criticisms of traditional self-help methods — e.g., “Affirmations are dishonest. They are a form of self-betrayal based on bogus, side-of-the-cereal-box psychology.”
For the most part, Burroughs is able to avoid bald platitudes, but the onslaught of advice eventually becomes tiresome; this is definitely a book to be read in small doses, consulted depending on the situation at hand. Burroughs is nothing if not wide-ranging, and “This Is How” contains easily digestible nuggets of solid advice on everything from love and marriage (“Long marriages have ended in ruin over tiny and insignificant grievances that were never properly aired and instead grew into a brittle barnacle of hatred”), to weight loss and body image, to the dangers of self-pity, which moves into victimhood without action, and the pitfalls of over-reliance on willpower (“Where there is willpower there is a Band-Aid that’s eventually going to fall off”).
Yes, “life itself is brutally, obscenely unfair,” and Burroughs isn’t here to deny or sugar-coat it with airy positive thinking. Like a libertarian with a compassionate streak, the author continually stresses the importance of personal responsibility and engaging in each moment with clear eyes and an open mind. Whatever issues readers may be facing — managing feelings, passive thinking, anorexia, need vs. want, confidence, shame, alcoholism, drug abuse, regret, emotional healing (which sometimes never occurs), metabolizing and harnessing anger, handling a diagnosis of terminal disease, dealing with a dying loved one — Burroughs has plenty to say, and most of it is right on the money.
Given the tremendous life challenges Burroughs has overcome, it’s fitting that his best advice involves some of the darkest topics. The most poignant chapter in the book, “How to End Your Life,” investigates his multiple suicide attempts and offers profound insight into the thoughts of a suicidal person. More important, Burroughs demonstrates the way out, effectively deconstructing and humanizing what is often a hushed topic. “Peace and release, silence and escape: These were some of the promises suicide made.” Unfortunately, he acknowledges, “you would have to still be alive to experience the benefits.”
Though the book offers no quick fixes — and refreshingly so — Burroughs provides a hefty cache of raw material for self-betterment. You may not agree with all of his advice, and may in fact find some of it to be trite or useless, but the author is a memorable guide on the road from darkness to light. And sometimes that road is even more significant and life-changing than the emergence on the other side.
“Life tucks its rarest, largest, and most D-flawless diamonds deep, deep inside the folds of the greatest loss,” he writes. “You do not know they are even there, glittering in the dark, right beside you.”Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus