Title: Rolling With The Punches
Author: Jamie Kerrick
Publisher: Outskirts Press
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Cheryl Anne Gardner
Joey Douglas' dad always told him when things got rough to "roll with the punches," and let's just say that Joey takes quite a few hits over the course of his fifty years. This story is billed as a dramedy for gay recovering addicts and alcoholics, but it reads more like a memoir than a tragic comedy, even if the main character, Joey, is funny in his own sarcastic self-deprecating way.
If I had to describe the reader experience, well, mine anyway, I would say it was like Dolly Parton's favourite emotion in Steel Magnolias: laughter through tears. However, many readers will just find it very frustrating and want to reach in and slap some sense into Joey. If you have no experience with addiction and alcoholism, you probably won't be able to connect with the main character and won't find the story all that stimulating or Joey all that endearing. Now if you have experience, either personally or with a loved one, this account of a man living in despair will ring all too true.
Joey lives in rural Kentucky, not necessarily the sort of place a young man wants to discover himself gay. He is tormented and abused, labelled a sissy, and left on his own to live in a fantasy world comprised of cliché now gay iconic films, music, and Broadway shows. Liza is mentioned a lot as is Babs and Judy Garland. His father isn't too fond of him idolizing women, and the relationship is strained at best. Joey's isolation takes a terrible toll on his psyche. He thinks his father hates him and is disappointed in him. So, convinced that there is something "wrong" with him, he first seeks solace in God with prayer: "God, if you'd put your son through all that Easter stuff, no wonder you're so hard on the rest of us." to no avail, which leads him to seek solace in alcohol and then later drugs in an attempt to reconcile his place in the world. Being openly gay is something Joey fears right up till the end of the book. He never confesses it, not even in AA. He keeps his addiction close and those who care about him at a distance. Subterfuge should be Joey's middle name, but to grow up gay in such an anti-gay environment not only made being a liar possible, it made it a necessity. All Joey wants is for people to accept him and maybe someday for someone to love him. More or less what everyone wants and has the right to have.
Sexuality is and always has been the number one fucked-up topic of discussion of all time. According to normal society, unless you do it hetero-missionary position with your eyes closed and the lights off, praying to God that he's looking the other way so he doesn't see that you are actually enjoying it, then you are a sexual deviant in some way. Can you imagine how many people feel like that and feel that the decision to hide one of the most important parts of themselves from the world at large is a matter of life or death? I can. I can imagine and understand how painful it must be. It's no wonder why Joey got into dance and Broadway shows. He needed the release; he needed the stage so he could just be someone else for a moment, maybe a someone else people would like. And they do like him, after a fashion, but only superficially and he knows it. Artistic talent rarely brings relief to the tortured artist, so why would it for the tortured gay guy?
As the story progresses, Joey finds himself in a myriad of situations that are typical for someone in the middle of a very serious identity crisis who uses drugs and alcohol to blunt the punches life deals him. He is a blackout drunk, so one can only speculate on what might have been "done" to him in his compromised state. It sort of made me think of Teddy when he went through his addiction phase on Queer as Folk. Joey too distrusts everyone, even those trying to help him. Like a typical addict, he is a user and an avoider. Everything he tries fails because, like an addict, he gives no effort and chooses to blame his dysfunction on his "situation" so he can feel ok with feeling out of control and thus justify the drug and alcohol use as therapeutic. Sure, he takes quite a lot of knocks in his life: there's some hate crime in the form of assault, many of his friends die of aids, his dad gets cancer and dies, his close friends move away ... and his favourite shrink moves away and then subsequently passes away. Having to deal with bigotry, betrayal, and abandonment during one's formative years is certain to leave scars, but the real issue with Joey is that he refuses to acknowledge those scars and the part he has played in the process of obtaining them, hoping instead to compensate by using his innate talent to entertain in an attempt to persuade people to like him. However, his trip to NYC to become the Broadway dancer/actor/comedian doesn't pan out, and he is again left without something to hide behind.
It isn't until his sister tries to connect him with Narcotics Anonymous that Joey even attempts to make a half-hearted strike at a clean and sober life. Yet again, we get just another merry-go-round of self-loathing, loneliness, and despair. Over the course of many years, Joey levels one excuse after another at his detractors in an effort to explain why going to meetings wasn't going to help him. "I have to lie about this," he silently reasons to himself in an AA meeting, "because the God of my understanding is Hitler’s clone." So the relapses are frequent and ugly. He attempts suicide and winds up in a loony bin, but then after a while, you are flipping the pages saying, "So what's new?" to yourself. This is addiction, and Mr. Kerrick paints a very heartfelt portrait of someone who can lie to themselves every day of their life: I'm fine; I only drink or whatever a little, just to take the edge off; I got it under control. You don't know me. I can handle it. And we all tend to shake our head when confronted with this sort of dialog because we do know the person, and we know they are damn lucky to be alive.
I wouldn't say the story is inspirational: it's sobering, and sad, and often pathetic. If anything, it serves to remind addicts that dealing with things now instead of later is a much better idea and when help is offered -- take it. Wallowing in self-pity gets you nowhere. Joey does finally commit to AA -- he felt it was more hands on and offered more than NA -- and at the end of the book he is two years sober and in his fifties. He, like all addicts, had to hit rock bottom before he could accept reason. Everyone's rock bottom is different. I felt Joey had a lot of bottoms in this story, enough to be thoroughly disgusted and ashamed of himself, but all you get for most of the book is a joke and a justification. Yes, that, my dear reader, is a true addict, and Mr. Kerrick nailed it. There is no logic here. For an addict, they want something they believe they do not deserve, and the rest is all sabotage to drive the point home. Addicts have terrible reasoning and coping skills; they actually believe their own bullshit after a while, and Mr. Kerrick makes that evident.
The only thing I really didn't care for in the book was the constant actress, movie, and show references. I understood why Mr. Kerrick did this. Joey could only relate to the world through his interpretation of these characters and their tragic storylines. At times, only they gave him the strength to push on, and instead of exposing his own true feelings about anything, he deferred to a reference, but I thought it was a little bit overdone. Aside from that, there were some minor editorial issues and a few formatting issues, but most readers probably won't notice them. The book is full of little witticisms, often used to shield the reader from the pain, but insightful nonetheless, and this is one of the nicest covers I have seen and it illustrated aptly the topsy turvey life of a very talented yet unhappy man. I kept waiting for Joey to do jazz hands every time he tried to convince himself that nobody knew what he was doing, kind of like Scheider's Fosse did in All That Jazz every time he looked in the mirror after popping a fist-full of pills. "It's Showtime!" All the world's a stage, and everyone is struggling to act a part people will like. Sad but true.
This book was reviewed from an ARC provided by the author's marketing firm and will be given away during one of our upcoming free book Fridays.