As I worked my way into Rob Roberge's The Cost of Living, I had to ask why it was being published by Other Voices Books and Dzanc (the former an imprint of the latter). Both presses are committed to innovative books that take risks, and, on first glance, Roberge's book is conventional. The main character is a relatively successful rock musician living on the edge and suffering from a gruesome drug addiction, and that's not material so far from the mainstream; from a certain perspective, it's exactly what one expects to get from the big houses.
Then I got to the book's increasingly amplified scenes of sex, and I had my answer. The Cost of Living not only represents how much sex can sometimes round out the world of drugs and rock and roll, but it does so candidly and in surprising and effective ways you'd never find coming from a more conservative press.
There are, at first, just mentions of the sexually uninhibited among whom the narrator travels—in particular, the ex-girlfriend who leads workshops teaching women how to ejaculate and, in the process, getting "fisted in front of all these people." But then, the narrative moves on to (or, rather, flashes back to) the sucking and licking the narrator performs on a latex-wearing bartender he's just met; and that's only the first of their hook-ups, which reach a high point when "Simone tightened and released…. She turned the vibrator up and started groaning with every thrust…. When she started coming—contractions, growing tight and then loose as she pushed back hard against me. Her back curved like she was throwing up."
It's a simultaneously erotic and unpleasantly graphic picture (even when carefully trimmed for publication here) that captures with a great deal of honesty the physicality of the pleasure, one of the pleasures, desperately sought by the narrator as he attempts to tamp down the mental illness and psychological pain that always prove to be the stronger influences in his life.
Also toward revealing that pain, the narrative repeatedly asks that we inhabit the many sides of abuse that the narrator experiences living with a violent father, a drug addict, and a mother whose mental illness ultimately leads to her disappearance and suicide, and that we feel from these influences the narrator's inescapable sense of hopelessness and loss—and that we see how those agonies lead to a drug addiction that comes to rule the narrator's life.
Roberge portrays that addiction with the same brutal candidness that he uses to show sex in the book, leading us through a variety of magnificent and ugly episodes of drug use that unrelentingly drive the narrator to situations increasingly outrageous, awful, and dangerous and that become more and more the norm for him, accepted as the state of affairs involved in finding some next fix. In one characteristic moment, the narrator find himself at the home of a dying man whose home-care worker has arranged a deal to cut him and a partner in on the morphine prescribed to ease her patient's passing. As a precursor to the morphine deal—and while his accomplice is upstairs fucking the nurse—our hero empties the downstairs medicine cabinet of Oxycontin, some of which he promptly takes alongside fentanyl lollipops he's sucking and the fentanyl patches he's applied before he takes a bath to increase the effect of the drugs. It's gross and excessive, however a short time later, he says, in a moment of morbid poetry that makes one see his pleasure,
I was nodding off. It felt good, a warm waking dream…. Incredible warmth flowed inside me—it was like my heart was a glowing road flare and my bones were hollowed-out bird bones. Balsa wood. I could have weighed ten pounds, the way I felt. Behind closed eyes fireworks displays fired in slow motion.
Of course, even this brief high goes to hell with...