From its epigraph by James Baldwin—“We are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them”—Rob Roberge signals to the reader that his novel, The Cost of Living, is about grappling with our sense of self and the high cost we often pay in that struggle.
Roberge’s protaganist is Bud Barrett, former lead singer of The Popular Mechanics, a Wilco-y band with a cult following. Years ago, Bud was tossed from the band because of his drug habit and now, after several years clean, he relapses when he joins the band for a reunion tour. But this isn’t a novel about drugs, or even rock and roll. It’s about the struggle to overcome our own wretchedness, to find redemption, to be able to love and be loved. It is a book with hope at its filthy center.
Bud is aching from the loss of his mother, the brutality of a murder he witnessed, and the wretchedness of his now dying father, whom he despises—not to mention his own assorted crimes and betrayals. No fix fixes it, no high is high enough to escape it, no low swooping enough to disappear into it, no mellow truly a relief.
We shuffle around Bud’s story through backflashes in fragmented bits, moving from the present to the past to the present. That style brings us smack into the way our interior worlds actually do collide with themselves—not in neat and tidy ways, but in messy, unruly ways.
The Cost of Living pulls off the mean trick of being both harrowingly dark and deeply funny. There is much drama; the sexuality is raw and fierce, the drug binges are hardcore and filled with needles, pills and whatever Bud and his friends can score. But far from being melodramatic, these vivid passages of excess upon excess strike me as a metaphor for Bud’s pain. Likewise the repeated instances of Bud physically injuring himself: in a less talented writer’s hands, these might have seemed over-the-top, but in Roberge’s world they are just right. Bud can’t escape pain, so he creates more misery for himself and everyone around him by soaking in his addiction. Roberge renders that vicious cycle knowingly, keenly, and brilliantly. At the center of Bud’s excesses there is a desperate hunger to be seen, to be able to tolerate seeing himself and letting others see him, too. To me, that’s love—to be visible to ourselves and others.
We want Bud to make it, to create a life more meaningful, without so much pain, so much senseless waste. We want him whole as much as he wants himself obliterated. Bud says of detox:
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.
The fragmented bits in this book hold a mirror to our fragmented selves. Roberge shows the reader that the road to redemption isn’t straight and narrow. It’s full of ghosts and pain—our own and those we’ve hurt. But that road is where the good stuff is, tooIt’s the road where, junkies or not, humans have a chance to move beyond the broken into whole.
The only way to escape, it turns out, is to stop trying to escape. “The same with every moment of my life up until this one. They could have been different – maybe every single one of them—but they weren’t.” In Roberge’s finely tuned, compelling novel, acceptance is the great escape.