What does it say about me if a funny thought pops into my mind while reading a drug addiction memoir? Sam Lansky’s 2016 debut, “The Gilded Razor,” was almost Augustinian in its searing frankness. I felt relief, of course, at the end, when its author, utterly worn out by his addiction at just 19, had enough energy to finally hop back on the wagon. But I couldn’t help it: Lansky’s account of having consumed, as a New York City prep-schooler, such a prodigious heap of illicit substances also provoked the mental image of a midlevel cartel accountant eyeing his balance sheets, alighting upon Lansky’s name on his roster of customers, twiddling his fingers and murmuring, “Excellent,” like Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.”
With his debut novel, “Broken People,” Lansky — the West Coast editor of Time magazine — proves himself a talented writer of fiction too: unsparingly honest, but also funny and mordant, willing to use his life and what he does to his body to comment on issues larger than himself.
Like the teenage Lansky in “The Gilded Razor,” this novel’s protagonist, Sam — a sober 28-year-old gay writer in Los Angeles (where the author also lives) — drinks something that isn’t exactly legal. At a dinner party hosted by a wealthy gay architect, Sam hears other guests gossiping about a man who is able to heal anyone’s problems in three days. This being a rarefied gathering in the Hollywood Hills, it feels apt that the man is a shaman, who — out of his home in Portland, Ore., where Sam happens to be from — uses the hallucinogenic ayahuasca to heal his clients’ traumas (“Like 10 years of therapy in a single weekend,” they rave) and even, hopefully, harness enlightenment.
Sam, the “pathologically self-conscious and anxious” victim of “self-obsessed insecurity,” is intrigued. He hates himself. He isn’t just itchy in his own skin; he’d like to rip off his “bulbous skin-sack that never contained its contents quite right,” and slip on another identity entirely. There is “a gnarled, ugly deficiency” at his core, he’s decided. When he finds love, he has to “destroy” it, “because on some level he was convinced that he didn’t deserve it.” He jokes with his friend that he’s “a black hole that endlessly sucks in validation and gives nothing back,” but it doesn’t feel all that funny. So despite his worry that imbibing a brew of ayahuasca will rupture his long-held sobriety, when the architect plans a trip to see the shaman, Sam finds his fingers typing back, as though of their own volition, “Take me with you.” It is a relief to the reader that the brew allows Sam to see himself in new, kinder ways.
Sam dons the hair shirt in this novel, but his coiled, bitter angst is tempered somewhat by his sense of humor, as satirical as it is self-aware. Observing the pampered architect’s stocked, pre-portioned refrigerator stash, Sam asks, “Is it normal to have your transdimensional journey catered?” In Portland, surprised to find no trace of crystals, flowing robes or tinctures at their destination, Sam likens the shaman — dressed in khakis, a collared shirt and a V-neck sweater — to “a substitute teacher, or a suburban dad on a rare night out.”
There was one nagging question I had while reading this book, though: Why is it in drag? “Broken People” feels like a memoir dressed up as a novel. Unlike with other autofictional stories (say, Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” or Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story”), I struggled to accept the conflation between the protagonist and the author of “Broken People.” Readers presume Heti’s and White’s narrators have at least something in common with their authors, but those novels read at once like an abstraction from and a distillation of lived experience. If autofiction demands a refraction of reality, “Broken People” reads more like an artful recitation of it. Early in the novel, Sam has lunch with his book agent, Elijah, who advises him against writing a second memoir, not seeing a “commercial path forward” that way after the success of his first. “Now, maybe if you wanted to write a novel … that might make more sense for you,” Elijah says. It looks as if Sam took Elijah’s advice.
That said, Lansky is a piercing observer of gay men and the often fraught relationships we have with our own bodies. “Maybe all gay men are made to feel, at some point, that they are wrong in the eyes of God, aberrations whose desires are dirty and shameful,” Sam muses about a man he has risky sex with. To anyone who thought Obergefell v. Hodges (the 2015 Supreme Court decision that affirmed same-sex marriage as a constitutional right) put an end to gay shame in America, “Broken People” provides a contradictory vision. We need more books like Lansky’s, ones that investigate why political progress doesn’t always translate to self-acceptance for queer people. But I can’t help thinking this particular argument would have been stronger if the protagonist had declined to take his agent’s advice.