In the opening pages of his this book, Augusten Burroughs feels trapped in an elevator with an ostensibly chirpy and optimistic woman — the kind of person who starts every morning by repeating positive affirmations to her reflection in the mirror and who doesn’t mind sharing secrets of her perky disposition with others. Any reader familiar with Burroughs’ best-selling memoirs (“Running with Scissors,” “Dry”) might imagine that his between-floors encounter, though it lasts a mere 35 seconds, becomes fodder for sardonic remarks about acceptable social intercourse and proper elevator etiquette.
So begins “This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.” That’s right; Burroughs has an answer for everything, having created a self-help guide that is unlike any other on the bookshelf. With his own brand of caustic wit and second-to-none sarcasm, he offers up a new kind of reverse psychology based on his own truths, which he offers as an alternative to what he calls “side-of-the-cereal-box psychology.”
For example, when the elevator lady, whom he instantly nicknames Lipstickmouth, encourages him to smile and think positively rather than wear his unhappiness on his sleeve, he writes: “My first thought was, ‘It’s leaking out of me? People can see it?’ My second thought was, ‘Die, bitch.’ ” He goes on to present his own case for allowing people to wallow in their woes when they need to, citing Canadian research that says repeating positive mantras about themselves can actually make people with low self-esteem feel worse.
Drawing from his own experiences as a recovering alcoholic, a victim of childhood molestation, a neuroses-ridden gay New Yorker, and a former advertising copywriter, Burroughs dispenses “how-to” advice on dealing with everything from addiction and suicidal tendencies to cancer and yo-yo dieting. Every chapter is a life lesson that is sometimes practical (how to ace a job interview) sometimes philosophical (how to see the truth behind the truth) and much of the time hilarious (how to feel like shit). His gift for outrageous analogies and original metaphors, used so skillfully in his previous books, continues to bear fruit in “This is How.”
In his attempt to describe the miracle of human life he offers this gem: “Think of the actual physical elements that compose our bodies: we are 98 percent hydrogen and oxygen and carbon. That’s table sugar. You are made of the same stuff as table sugar. Just a couple of tiny differences here and there and look what happened to the sugar: it can stand upright and send tweets.”
Then there’s his take on shattering shame: “It just doesn’t seem likely that shame will be the next cupcakes. It may be destined to remain terminally uncool, relegated forever to the distant corner of the past we’d rather forget, right there along with clogs.”
For all of its humor, however, “This is How” has a surprisingly upbeat tone compared to Burroughs’ earlier books. Beneath the dark commentary is a semi-serious and sincere voice that comes from years of therapy and rehab. While he can sound at times like the Anti-Oprah, punching holes in platitudes and clichés, he can also be as profound as Norman Vincent Peale when he writes movingly on the topics of love and death. His observations are offered in an honest, plain-spoken manner with an earnest attempt to keep it real and even be inspirational.
“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.”
There is a lot that readers can take away from this book; the author’s ultimate message is to live in the moment and be truthful to yourself. And Burroughs attempts to show you how.