The Cost of Living
By Rob Roberge
OV Books, 2013
$14.40, 285 pp
Reviewed by Mike Hampton
Rob Roberge is the author of the short story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Point in My Life, and the novels More Than They Could Chew and Drive. His fiction has appeared in numerous publications, and his dramatic writing has been produced on stage and film. He performs in several L.A. bands such as The Danbury Shakes, and The Urinals. His time spent touring in rock bands inform his latest novel The Cost of Living, which feels like the offspring the Rolling Stone’s documentary Gimme Shelter and Thomas McGuane’s Panama, if such a thing were possible. The novel tells the story of Bud Barrett, a former rock icon whose battle with addiction would rival Keith Richards’ in his heyday. Over the course of the novel Bud tries to piece together his life in a way that makes sense, and his personal failures and memory lapses are as heartrending as those of McGuane’s Chet Pomeroy.
The novel opens as Bud waits in hotel across from the hospital where his father is dying. He is restless and fears he’ll relapse again. However, Bud has made a pact with himself: use again and take enough to die. He scrolls through his phone, looking for support. He won’t, however, contact his estranged wife Olivia, who will not tolerate another relapse from Bud. Instead Bud calls Ray, a former sponsor, but like every other person in his life Ray is tired of rescuing him: “You want to kill yourself, call some fucking fan that’ll bring you dope just to say they got high with you. Don’t call me.” Bud feels abandoned and scared, left with his physical and emotional scars. The novel’s main concern is exploring what has led him to this ultimate and dire aloneness.
The absence of a stable home began Bud’s journey of personal destruction. He grew up in a family filled with mental illness and violence. His mother jumped off a bridge. As his father lays dying, Bud longs to ask him questions about her suicide, for no other reason that he may have inherited her own self-destructive tendencies:
[W]hen I did attempt suicide, and even later after what I hoped was the last relapse, where I’d get close to ending it all, when that same loneliness swallowed the world, I wondered: was I trying, in some sort of desperation, to get close to her, or trying, just as desperately, to get away?
Bud believes only his father can explain who she was and why she chose to die, but his father is the man he hates most. An alcoholic who saw violence as strength, Bud’s father had warned “…you never throw a punch at a man unless you’re willing to kill him…how the fuck do you know that man isn’t willing to kill you?” This philosophy comes dramatically to life when
Bud witnesses his father kill a man over the price of a used car:
Somehow, and with staggering speed, this became something to fight over and then a reason to kill, and my father who was still holding the axe we were using to split the firewood, hit the man on the side of the head with the dull end of the axe.
Bud is only thirteen, but even though not to believe his father who claims the deceased had recognized him from his time working undercover.
From these tragedies, Roberge’s protagonist enters into a life of drugs and music, the latter allowing him to escape his troubles and spite his father, who disapproves of his aspirations. By the mid-80s Bud plays in a cow-punk band called the Popular Mechanics whose sound is described as “the bastard child of Hank Williams and the Stooges.” Through hard touring the band succeeds. They appear on late night shows, and seem poised to make a commercial breakthrough. However, Bud’s drug use makes him experiment with the band’s sound to disastrous effect. While high he recuts the band’s album The Suicide Variations, after seven thousand dollars in studio time had been invested. Bud’s addiction has become a liability, and he is kicked out of the band.
Throughout these dramatic twists and turns, Rob Roberge displays a gift for honest detail. This is most apparent when Bud relates extreme events vividly, without innuendo. When he has sex with a bartender he states, “Simone tightened and released her asshole around my cock. It felt like a fuck and a blow job at the same time.” Later, when he has Simone break his fingers he states, “…skin stripped down to the bone, over the second and third knuckles. And it seemed broken at the big knuckle, already swelling to twice its normal size.” Where other authors often fall into suggestion, Roberge’s writing is driven by raw confession. He allows readers into Bud’s mind, no matter how sexual or violent.
As the novel hurtles toward its climax, Roberge paints a picture of real world highs and lows. Bud falls for a teacher named Olivia whose father was also an artist and drug addict. Their relationship progresses fast, but eventually falters. Bud rejoins the Popular Mechanics for a reunion, but finds himself in great pain from a damaged hand. Throughout all of Bud’s battle with addiction, all of gritty and hard scrabble details that compose Bud’s life, perhaps Roberge’s greatest victory is allowing Bud not so much to live, but to linger:
The past is the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever over. I know myself well enough to know that I’ll beat myself up forever for letting the loss of my mother turn into the loss of my father too. The past is the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.
In the hospital waiting room, Bud may make it through the darkest hours of his life, but the future threatens him as much as the past. Readers are left to consider if forgiveness of one’s self is the only true escape in life, and if Bud will ever achieve this brutal truth.