James Brown’s new memoir, This River, is a collection of a dozen stories, most of which were previously published in literary journals or magazines. Here they come together to form a taut, sometimes brutal, picture of a man whose life has been ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and plain old-fashioned hard luck. But it would be wrong to label this work as confessional or some sort of misery memoir. Brown doesn’t revel in his personal catastrophes. Arguably some of his best work is the work in which he explores his relationships with his two young sons or his own father. He’s got a light touch, a thoughtful outlook, and he knows how to weave a gripping narrative.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Having had my own struggles with addiction, I appreciate good stories about the lives of addicts and alcoholics. But the problem with many of these stories is that it’s so easy for an author to allow the work to fall into one of two catchall categories: sensational tales (as in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces), or revisionist bullshit stories that are often little more than thinly veiled testimonials for another person’s efforts or some sort of therapy. Brown doesn’t fall into either of these traps with his writing.
Of course, Brown does have extraordinary situations to relate—what lifelong addict wouldn’t?—but he doesn’t rely on this sort of circumstance to carry his stories. Case in point, in the chapter titled, “Instruction on the Use of Heroin,” Brown describes going to purchase drugs in a well-to-do community somewhere in the “neighboring mountains” of San Bernardino, “well above the fray,” where he meets a man who was formerly his AA sponsor, now a drug dealer. Brown describes his former recovery mentor’s appearance at the door this way:
He’s wearing a ratty tank top, but what I notice most at this moment are the syringes hanging from his shoulders, one on each side, the needles sunk into the middle head of the deltoid muscle. On the left, it’s loaded with heroin. On the right, it’s cocaine. I can tell the difference because one syringe contains a dark-colored fluid while the other, the coke, is a milky white.
If he needs a bump up, he depresses the plunger on the milky-white side. If he needs a bump down, something to even him out, to take the edge off the coke, it’s the dark side. The idea is to find the perfect balance, but for now he’s on the upside, spun on the coke.
What makes Brown’s work so satisfying to read is that he doesn’t rely on these type characters alone to carry his stories. In the above chapter about meeting his drug dealer, Brown thoughtfully examines the sexual mores of another character, Crystal, (her name an apt pseudonym) an equally strung-out teenage girlfriend of the forty-something drug dealer. We learn with horror that Crystal lives with the dealer with the permission of her mother, who is also strung out on drugs.
“[Your wife is] so pretty,” [Crystal] says in that dream voice again.
By no means is this Crystal’s way of flirting with me.
She’s genuinely interested in my wife. At every A.A. meeting, when we were all still clean and sober, and whenever my wife accompanied me in support, which she did often, Crystal would stare at her from across the room. And there was something desperate about it. Something sad. Something pathetic. It was the way a young girl stares admiringly at a beautiful older woman, the one the girl wishes to be like, the one she might’ve hoped to have had for a mother. And because she did not, because she lacks the confidence and self-esteem that is every child’s birthright, because narcotics steal any fleeting hope of a better life, Crystal trades, as her mother still trades, on her sexuality.
Brown sizes up poor Crystal accurately, in just a few words, but he’s so gentle, so tender. Another writer might have described her as immoral or worse. Something more heavy-handed. But not Brown.
And if he doesn’t rely on his career as an addict to move us, Brown’s not here to laud any particular therapy or approach to addiction either. If an A.A. sponsor shows up in one of Brown’s stories, he’s just as likely to have failed at his own recovery as to hold out the lone chance for anyone else’s redemption.
Brown doesn’t limit his introspection to seedy characters from his addiction. In a brief, touching chapter, “Remembering Linda,” he explores his childhood anger for Helen, a teenage girl with whom he lived in a strict foster home. Only you don’t realize he is angry with Helen until the very end of the story. Throughout his telling, he is more concerned with his infatuation with Linda, who is then suddenly whisked from the foster home (and his life) for rule violations, and for which he feels oddly incriminated. But what makes the story so remarkable is that Brown mutes his anger even as he reveals it. Instead he focuses on the larger truth of the desperate emotional needs of teenage girls trapped in foster care, a truth that is made clear so swiftly and with such ease in the very last lines, it can take your breath away.
When it comes to addiction and mental health issues, Brown’s This River doesn’t offer platitudes, easy answers, or stock characters. He seems at his best when he fixes his gaze on the hard realities of life, not to complain or blame, but to shine a light on the resilience of the human spirit.