Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

In his suicide note, Kurt Cobain wrote, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." He was quoting a Neil Young song about Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. When I was twenty-four, I interviewed John Lennon. I asked him about this sentiment, one that pervades rock and roll. He took strong, outraged exception to it. "It's better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out," he said. "I worship the people who survive. I'll take the living and the healthy."

The living and the healthy.

I do not know if my son can be one of them.

The full title of David Sheff's memoir is "Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction." It's a pretty awesome book, and unusual because I haven't read a book about addiction from the view of a parent before this. There are a lot of former-addict memoirs out there (James Frey, Anthony Kiedis, the anonymous author of "Go Ask Alice") and while poignant and touching, the genre is starting to feel a bit tired. I think my disillusionment started with the whole "A Million Little Pieces" debacle (Oprah said she felt "really duped." Me too Oprah. Me too.)

Anyway, back to Beautiful Boy. Call me voyeuristic, but I enjoy memoirs and biographies (even fake ones; see my review of "American Wife") above all other forms of literature. I also really like the A&E show "Intervention." Put those two things together and you have this book. I knew I was going to like it and I did. What surprised me was the quality of the writing. This wasn't some random parent struggling to give his son's disease justice. This was a writer struggling to give his son's disease justice. Sheff was distinguished for his writing career before this best-seller's release. He had the privilege of writing one of the last interviews with John Lennon, when he asked the musician the question above.

Beautiful Boy is a story about addiction, but Sheff didn't want that to be his son's entire story. So he starts at the beginning of Nic's life, and spins a tale of a precocious, creative, adorable child growing up in Northern California amid the chaos of his parents' divorce and an imperfect joint custody agreement that spans several hundred miles. Nic seems like a pretty terrific kid all the way up through high school. He shares a special relationship with his dad, and welcomes a new stepmom and, in time, baby siblings. All the while, Sheff paints a portrait of an extraordinarily sensitive and caring child.

Nic is a friend to everyone. He experiments with alcohol and pot at an early age but after some initial concern, his dad dismisses the incidents as normal teenage experimentation. Sheff himself had a colorful adolescence with regard to drugs, so he is inclined to be forgiving. Later, his openness with Nic about his past will be one of the many things Sheff blames himself for.

It is not until Nic's senior year of high that his behavior and experimentation turn seriously harmful. While he does manage to graduate, Nic spends most of the year in a haze of smoke, and tries hard drugs for the first time the night of graduation. In college, Nic discovers meth, which he says is like finding something he's been looking for his whole life. "When I tried it for the first time, that was that," he says.

Nic's battle with drug and alcohol addiction, particularly to the pernicious methamphetamine, takes over the second half of Sheff's book. In and out of rehab, homeless on the streets, stealing from his own parents and grandparents, Nic is constantly attended by his addiction and his father's love. In the second half of Beautiful Boy, Sheff takes on a more introspective tone, as he turns inward to deal with what he calls his addiction to his son's addiction. Sheff realizes that he is so preoccupied with his son's disease that he's neglecting his wife, his other children and his own mental health. After a lot of family therapy, Al-Anon and his own life-threatening illness, Sheff ends the book on a cautiously optimistic note: Nic, despite several relapses, is sober for the time being.

I really appreciated the author's interesting writing style when reading this book. It kind of made me feel like I was drinking in this family's saga, rather than just reading words off a page. I'd confidently recommend this book to lit snobs just as often as story lovers like myself. Interestingly, Nic has written a YA memoir too, called "Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines." I haven't decided if I'm going to read Nic's memoir yet, but if I do, you'll see it on here.


Christopher said...

I find the concept of this book to be weird--I mean, clearly Nic seems to have given his blessing, but wouldn't it be strange for your Dad to write a book about you?

Nihil Novum said...

I'm sort of curious about this book, just because I really like that excerpt. Are there other music related anecdotes?

Meagan said...

tons. Lennon, Cobain, Dylan. The title comes from John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)."

Sheff begins every unit with lyrics or a quote from music, literature (Thomas Lynch and Joan Didion are favorites); like this one that starts the first unit, about Nic's childhood:

"I have a daughter who reminds me too much of what I used to be, full of love and joy, kissing every person she meets because everyone is good and will do her no harm. And that terrifies me to the point to where I can barely function." -Kurt Cobain, in his suicide note

Sheff also weaves music into his story, marking Nic's stages of life by the music he listens to: Raffi to Pete Seeger to Dylan to the Kinks and some punk to Kurt Cobain to Weezer to some obscure stuff.

Sheff talks about Eternal Sunshine a lot, quoting in in the last part of the book. He wishes he could get Nic erased from his brain sometimes, to have some peace. but other times, the though seems unfathomable.

it's a good book. interesting for music lovers too. read it, i say.

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