Rob Roberge is a man unstuck in time. As he looks back across the decades, reexamining his memories of tragedy and euphoria, of sickness and love, his life story unfolds for him in random order. And even he is uncertain how much of it is true.
The gifted author and indie-rock guitarist has titled his memoir "Liar," which is more an admission of uncertainty than deceit. What follows all rings true, like anything told by a really good fabulist. Early on, he addresses himself, cautioning, "Nabokov said that memory is a revision. Maybe you revised a lot of this wrong. You are honestly not sure."
His stories of sex, death, art and oblivion have been told often enough to astonished friends that Roberge is no longer sure that they're not just tall tales of living on the punk-rock edge. He writes of being bipolar and his struggles with drugs and drink, but he is also highly functional as a novelist ("The Cost of Living"), a writing professor and a rock musician (the Urinals, Danbury Shakes), spending long, obsessive hours playing guitar or crafting words.
The process of remembering and recording means facing all the bad that accompanied fleeting moments of good. They play out in bits and pieces: An anecdote from 1997 is followed by another from 2013, then one from 1982. It is never jarring in the least. It's how his mind works.
A moment of bliss he keeps telling himself to remember, about sharing the stage with indie-rock heroes Yo La Tengo, is juxtaposed with a memory from childhood: He's crawling around the floor where his father works as a pharmacist, finding a red pill that "looks like candy." He eats it, feels better than he ever has, and sets out on the road to pharmaceutical ruin.
He is suspended in third grade for lip-syncing to an R-rated Redd Foxx record during show and tell. And there were even more serious incidents, like the unsolved slaying of a childhood girlfriend, which obsesses him well into his 40s. She is the first but not only close female friend to be killed.
There are youthful experiments with booze, cigarettes and more: "Anything that makes you feel different than the way you normally feel is always welcome."
This is hardly a romanticized drug tale. The opening chapter is layered with bad memories and fear, describing an unscheduled moment of existential crisis. After 15 years clean, he's relapsed into the drug life and he is spiraling, contemplating suicide. Death is a grim but welcome concept.
He thinks about the singer Mark Linkous of the band Sparklehorse, who shoots himself at 47. He talks of Hunter S. Thompson's choice to kill himself at 67, and about the poet Anne Sexton, who killed herself at 45. He identifies with them.
A year into his relapse, his AA sponsor asked him to list his finer qualities. Among them, Roberge writes hopefully: "Can be honest. Have been honest."
There is an active sex life that begins early. In high school, he has a six-month affair with a friend's mother, whose "mouth tastes like Virginia Slims and Tab." The fringe benefits include access to (i.e., stealing) her Valium and Percocet pills. He's told friends this Mrs. Robinson story — great material — for so long that over time, the experiences are less recognizably his own. "You've changed it around so much," he writes, "you can't remember how it really happened."
The words are blunt and elegant as he leaps across these stages of his life. Roberge uses the example of Titanic survivors testifying with wildly divergent details at odds with the facts: who was aboard the final lifeboat launched, whether the ship broke in half as it sank, the ratio of men to women and children who escaped (versus the far less chivalrous actual number).
"No one came to the inquiry to lie.... But if the initial fact is the true event, that initial truth then becomes like a sophisticated virus that adapts to each host, so that it is never quite identical to the original virus, nor to its manifestations in any other host."
The Titanic is a recurring image. His grandfather had a friend aboard the ship from Halifax that was tasked with retrieving the bodies floating in 28-degree water. Cadavers judged to be from first class are put in caskets, while dead steerage passengers were weighted and sent to the bottom. A frozen dog is also pulled from the water momentarily. But only some of this is true, Roberge admits. The story is merely an excuse to share factoids that satisfy his Titanic obsession. There is no family friend, no frozen dog.
"You have scars you lie about and scars you tell the truth about," Roberge writes to himself. It hardly matters in the end, as even the memories that have lost their connection to the literal truth reveal something genuine about the mind faced with reliving them.
Liar: A Memoir
Crown: 272 pages, $26