If you’ve known people in AA, NA, or any kind of recovery program, or if you’re in recovery, you may be familiar with “Tales From the Bottom.’’ As a recovering addict swims back to life, upward from the depths, he or she can find healing in recounting stories of substance-fueled disasters, many of which end in jail, bankruptcy, divorce, and worse.
In the case of comic Rob Delaney, author of a new memoir, his tale from the bottom culminates with him at age 25 blacking out and driving a car into a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, after which he is temporarily unable to use his arms and legs, after which there is a court date, rehab, and a halfway house.
Baby boomers love to throw down competing stories of how many tabs of acid they survived as the Grateful Dead played “Dark Star” in 1972, stories that often have an air of boasting. But “Tales From the Bottom’’ tend to be grim, grievous, and tinged with regret, and those sharing them often appear to be seeking liberation from and taking ownership of their old secrets.
That’s the redemptive tone that Delaney takes in the sometimes potent but stunted “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.” A stand-up comic whom Comedy Central deservedly named “The Funniest Person on Twitter” last year, Delaney has written before about his alcoholism and about the fierce depression that came in its wake. His powerful 2010 blog entry “On Depression & Getting Help,” in which the gregarious man’s man describes his overwhelming suicidal thoughts, went viral.
But in this memoir, whose chapters jump among his significant life events with only a nod to chronology, Delaney digs further than ever into the specifics of his descent — the parties, the stupid decisions, and the illegal bungee-cord jumping off the Manhattan Bridge. In one chapter, he recounts a 1998 boating mishap in Marblehead, where he grew up. “I was never intellectually unaware of the danger I put myself in,” he writes about the capsized dinghy and the near death of his friend Michael; “I just loved to drink. And the distance from one drink to eight or fifteen was like a waterslide or a well-lit path in a very alluring wood.” A lot of what Delaney says is an extension of familiar recovery thinking, but his dogged and sometimes shocking candor is always effective — just as it is in his often sexually explicit comedy.
In one of the best, most moving chapters, called “My Dead Friends,” he describes the loss of three men he met during his four-month stint at Genesis, a halfway house in West Los Angeles. After he gets word that Kelly, a handsome doctor struggling with an Oxycontin addiction, has OD’d, he gets a call from Kelly’s brother. “He cried as he spoke to me,” Delaney writes, “and I’m crying right now thinking about it. He asked me to stay sober because he didn’t want anybody else to die like his brother did.” When comic Marc Maron revisits his addiction years and his recovery, he has a more neurotic, Woody Allen-like affect; Delaney tells his ghost stories with a strong and persuasive undercurrent of heartache.
So “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage” isn’t by any means a series of comic essays. But still, there is humor here, of course, some of it light (reprints of his tweets, his use of French chapter titles to add an effete touch to gritty material) but most of it gallows. He explains how he masturbated in rehab with both his arms in casts, for example. And he jokingly describes his long history of bed-wetting, a la Sarah Silverman, but adds pathos by linking his problem until he was 25 to his alcoholism.
Delaney really seems to be trying to tell a focused story for much of the book, and at points the material feels as though it is building toward something in a full-on narrative swing. That’s why “Rob Delaney” ultimately disappoints; by the end, the topics have slid into randomness as he recounts episodes during his junior year in Paris and a case of hepatitis A. It’s obvious filler. Finally, despite the vigor of Delaney’s voice, the narrative just kind of peters out.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.