The Cost of Living
by Rob Roberge
Other Voices Books
Both gritty and lyrical, The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge is a drug-fueled emotional rollercoaster ride that mainlines the voices of Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, and Jim Carroll, leaving you spent and shaky, looking for your next fix. Roberge shows us the life and times of Bud Barrett, a failed musician, who has fallen from grace. Jumping back and forth from the present to the past, touching down at various crossroads in Bud’s troubled existence, Roberge paints a vivid picture of loss and hope, desire and human frailty, redemption and addiction, that is painful to watch and yet a cautionary tale for us all.
Either Roberge has had a rough life or he simply found a way to channel the authenticity of the junkie experience. I’m guessing a little of both. Part of what makes this such a compelling story are the details, the up-close moments that make us squirm and look away, always coming back to the page to see how it turns out. Even if you’ve never had so much as a beer or a joint, let alone speed, heroin, or morphine, the visceral accounts of euphoria and withdrawal Roberge injects into the story give you everything you need to understand the duality of addiction. This is Bud on suffering and rehab:
The first three days of cleaning out are a pain and suffering you can’t believe are happening. And the suffering gets wrapped up in the awareness that you did this to yourself. That you’ve been doing it to yourself for years. Every cramp, every sandpaper-hot rusty pained blink of your aching eyes, every stream and eruption of puke and piss and shit you can’t control escaping from your clenched, hurt body, every nerve ending going off like a trillion simultaneous electric shocks, every second of begging for sleep and not getting it. Through all of that, you sit there, rolling on the floor, despising yourself and swearing you’ll never, never, never go through this again, no matter what.
What adds to this physical pain and suffering is the emotional damage that goes with it. What he doesn’t say at the end of this passage, but we hear in our head, is the next line: And yet, you do it again. That’s addiction, that’s the power of the monkey that sits on your back screeching in your ear.
Buried beneath the years of addiction, and failure, is the dysfunction that Bud was forced to endure by his abusive father and long-dead mother. There is a history of insanity in the family, physical and mental abuse, and, of course, a wide range of drug addictions. When you stack the angry father on top of the suicide of the mother, the son is mangled and fractured from the beginning. Take this bit of advice from Bud’s father: “I’m going to give you a life lesson, Bud. Everyone who matters to you? You want to know what life boils down to? They bury you or you bury them.”
This is not a healthy relationship. It’s not surprising that much later in the novel, Bud has these thoughts about his life and his actions: “The thought of killing my father sickens me. I would never have imagined my life would come to a moment like this. But then, my life has been filled with moments I never would have guessed were coming. Everyone’s life is, I suppose. None of us are special.”
This is the mind that has been destroyed over the years. This is the voice of a man who has found love and lost it through his inability to control his habits, to remain clean, to keep his word. And that’s a heavy weight that settles over the reader.
But this novel is not one note—it is not just a vicious circle of failure and depression, surrounded by the bliss and enlightenment of the fleeting highs that Bud seeks. We are allowed to feel the excitement of his career as a musician, the core member of a band called the Popular Mechanics. We get to witness his genius as a poker player, the mind behind the math and courage it takes to play this game at the highest levels. And we get to know him as husband, the way he gives himself over to his wife Olivia, and the intimacy and beauty of two people that are engulfed by each other, made whole by each other—the sum greater than its parts. And that’s what makes his failures that much more spectacular. It would be easy to laugh at the lengths he goes to in order to score drugs, the stupid plans, the ridiculous ways that he compromises himself. At times, it is funny, until you realize that this is a real person, not a cartoon, and the black comedy turns back into despair—always with a sprinkling of hope, a dusting of optimism, rooting for him to finally wake up, to get his act together, to understand the pain he is inflicting on those around him, since he obviously doesn’t care about himself.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. It’s also been said that a body pulled in many directions at once doesn’t move at all. Rob Roberge has shown us the tenderness of our humanity and the brutality of our base desires. And with the final words of his novel The Cost of Living, he shows us that even after years of abuse and pain, there is always a chance that we can change and evolve—if only we’ll fight for our miserable lives hard enough:
I dump the vial—the empty ones and the full one—into the garbage can. . . . I feel bad about not knowing some junkie in town because, whether I’m doing the morphine or not, it just feels wrong to throw the full ones out. I walk down the sidewalk and cross on the green light even though I have no idea what direction it’s taking me. No idea where I’m going, but wanting, somehow, to be in motion among strangers in this city where I was born.