In his painfully honest (and funny) new memoir, British comedian Russell Brand turns a lifetime of drug and sex addiction, and other relentlessly bad behavior, into a rollicking good read.
Upon first impression, Russell Brand is incredibly charming, gut-bustingly funny and endearingly self-deprecating; the kind of person who makes you feel like you’re the lucky attendee at an exclusive party of you and him. But as time passes, the cloying neediness behind the charm occasionally flickers forward, and the veil of self-deprecation is pulled back to reveal a relentless narcissism. As an experience it’s fascinating, but ultimately exhausting.
I don’t think I’m saying anything here that Brand himself wouldn’t agree with, for it would be difficult to write a book whose full title is My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up, without copping to a mammoth-sized appetite for attention. And heroin. And hookers. And then more heroin. And then a spot of crack, as the Brits would say. This hunger has driven him to enormous fame but also to the brink of total self-destruction.
Less interested in finding real relationships than seeking a spotlight, he describes an existence where any sense of responsibility to others is willingly cast aside in favor of making himself into a bacchanalian spectacle.
In Britain, the 33-year-old Brand is a huge star, as an actor, stand-up, radio personality, and tabloid wreck. Over the course of the last few years, he has made inroads to becoming one here as well, creating a scene-stealing role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and hosting last year’s MTV Movie Awards. This weekend, Comedy Central will premiere his first American hour-long comedy special. I missed the awards, but from the bits I’ve seen of him in Sarah Marshall and in stand-up and interview clips on the interwebs, I find him undeniably funny and magnetically likable. He has described his own appearance, which usually includes a disheveled bird’s nest of rocker hair and a penchant for eyeliner and tight black jeans, as “S&M Willy Wonka”; this strikes me as dead-on, not only as a description of his sartorial style but also of his creative voice, which is by turns sunnily naïve and knowingly depraved.
That Brand’s voice remains so thoroughly intact on the page is what makes My Booky Wook, for the most part, a fun, funny, and breezy read. “Fun” and “breezy” might seem like odd adjectives to apply to an autobiography whose recurring theme is a life-threatening dance with addictions, but as Brand himself writes, “…The fact that I’ve managed to make it funny is bloody convenient, because I can’t think how else I would make them listen.” Bloody convenient or not, Brand’s writing style is, like his stand up, effervescently conversational, strewn with asides and tangents of tremendous wit. The seeming casualness of it all is a testament to his writerly gifts, for the accumulated effect is of being in the audience live at some late night X-rated Russell Brand show.
Which brings me back to my opening assertion. Brand’s story, which starts and ends with his stay at a treatment center for sex addiction, is one of a lonely, outspoken misfit whose need for attention gradually caused him to turn his entire life into a performance. We follow him on his journey from a drab upbringing in Essex, where he quite compellingly describes a first act of naughtiness involving stomping on a kindly old neighbor’s flower bed, to drama school and beyond, at which point a growing talent went hand in hand with a growing addiction to sex and hard drugs. Less interested in finding real relationships than seeking a spotlight, he describes an existence where any sense of responsibility to others is willingly cast aside in favor of making himself into a bacchanalian spectacle. Stealing money from charities for drugs, pissing on friend’s beds, making a prostitute cry—there are a seemingly endless series of barrel bottoms being hit in his spiral downward. Brand says that when he finally got clean, a former girlfriend described his drug addicted self as a “monster,” and indeed, he is openly confessing here to truly repugnant behavior.
I suspect that the same boundless narcissism that interfered so thoroughly in his life and the lives of those around him is what also interferes in the complete success of the Booky Wook. Brand, referring at one point to his sex addiction as a way to relax, writes, “…we all need something to help us unwind at the end of the day…you might have a glass of wine or a joint…but there has to be some form of punctuation, or life just seems utterly relentless.”
However, while those indulgent episodes may have provided Brand punctuation in his actual life, his recounting of them does begin to feel “utterly relentless,” and in a specifically unpunctuated manner. He writes, I suppose, as he behaved, skipping blithely from one car wreck to another without ever truly pausing to take account of anyone else’s experience but his own. Because he doesn’t shake focus from himself for any amount of time, his stories all begin to seem the same. Characters introduced as having significance in his life—i.e., a first love—are given little more weight than anyone else, half-sketched and then abandoned as the next tragicomic disaster unfolds. While most memoirs seem to benefit from a dose of emotional distance between the author and his subject, Brand’s occasionally suffers from a need to get closer. The chronic feeling of emotional distance he describes as the catalyst for his wild life, is not always the best lens through which to tell the story of it.
In spite of these issues, I walked away from My Wooky Book eager to hear more of Brand’s voice, albeit in smaller doses. To his credit, he does indicate an awareness of his own pitfalls, writing of himself: “If you strip away self-effacement, charm, and the spirit of mischief… you’re left with a right asshole.” Luckily for him and us, he has those qualities in abundance.
Jessi Klein is a writer and comedian who has frequently appeared on Comedy Central, CNN, VH1, and the Today show. She also likes to think she has value as a human being aside from her numerous credits in the entertainment industry.