Self-Help's Sinister Underside 

Bucky Sinister tells "misfits, freaks, and weirdos" to get off their drunk asses.

Poet Bucky Sinister has a few favorite haunts in San Francisco's Mission district, some up-and-running, some long-defunct. They all represent a long period of self-immolation. In the early '90s, Bucky hung out in warehouse spaces like Klub Kommotion and Studio 4, where he'd read poems between sets by punk bands. Later on, particularly during a long bender between 1998 and 2002, he became a regular barfly at dives like the Uptown and the Kilowatt. These days, you'll often find him at Philz coffee shop on 24th and Folsom Streets, where he indulges other, more innocuous addictions. Bucky's been on the wagon since 2002, and still attends regular twelve-step meetings in church basements. The grouchy, tattooed spoken-word poet seems an improbable poster child for sobriety groups. And yet the print run for his new book, Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, & Weirdos, dwarfs that of his previous two books of poetry (both of which used alcoholism as a main theme). Whatever success Bucky hasn't found in the spoken-word scene, he hopes to find in self-help.

It seems like an odd medium for a nihilist, and 39-year-old Bucky is, in many ways, just that. Although raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in Searcy, Arkansas, (his father was a traveling preacher; his mother cooked Bisquick casseroles for various clergymen who stayed at their house for indefinite periods of time; Bucky learned scripture before he could read), he disaffected at age seventeen after an epiphany. "One Sunday night while in the pulpit of some hick church in the middle of Arkansas, I had the realization that religion was all bullshit," he wrote. Because he structures Get Up within the conventions of genre, it could easily pass for a conversion narrative: an old, corrupted self transforms into a new replenished self. Adopting a tone that's often endearingly conversational, but sometimes has the cadence of a fascist football coach ("Get Off Your Drunk Ass"; "What Do You Want — A Cookie?"; "Get This — You Matter!"), Bucky issues a series of directives, supplemented with personal stories that serve as a rhetorical appeal. His writing crackles with colloquial wit (he refers to the addict's past wound as a "kick in the nads"), which makes it palatable for readers seeking entertainment rather than salvation. But Get Up also shows how compelling the self-help format can be.

Bucky's kick in the nads didn't happen in one fell swoop. The way he tells the story, a combination of factors led him on the path toward alcoholism. Failure of religion was one of them, though it was compounded by his lack of self-control. Add on the fact that Bucky conceived of himself as a punk rock analogue to Charles Bukowski or Philip K. Dick, which meant that alcohol was essential to his creative process. He'd sit at his computer with a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey, type a page, take a slug, and persist that way until either the writing was finished or the bottle was empty. Bucky started drinking in his late teens, became a "functional drinker" in his twenties, and degenerated in his early thirties.

Through it all he remained a funny, self-deprecating, and thoroughly likeable character. "I was drinking on a daily basis from my early twenties on," he said. "I don't know like when I could have walked away from it — at what point I turned that corner." During the '90s Bucky went from living in a punk warehouse on 17th and Capp streets to landing cubicle jobs at video game and animation companies. The salary increase allowed him to switch from store-bought whiskey to frou-frou cocktails, and he started going to bars every night instead of staying at home. He no longer had much incentive to turn on his computer.

Then came the real downward spiral. As Bucky's friends abandoned the party life to get married and buy houses in Bernal Heights, Bucky cranked it up a notch. Every day he would come to the office hung over (or drunk from the night before) and overcompensate by working long hours. He had temper flare-ups and would freak out over minor slights, like a snotty e-mail. ("I would just lose my shit, you know? Because I was drunk: 'Hey, come over and say that to my face' kinda thing.") He drank so much that he no longer had much appetite for food. He gained weight, felt sick all the time, and was inconsolable. He tried quitting on his own — or cutting back, at least — but nothing seemed to work. Finally, in 2002, Bucky went to his first self-help meeting at the behest of a bartender friend who used to drive him home when he was too drunk to call a cab. Bucky said he was dubious, because to him, self-help groups sounded like an Amway marketing swindle. He was surprised to see so many people he knew there.

Bucky soon became a fixture in the twelve-step circuit — he now leads his own group — but didn't actually get "discovered" until October 2007, during a NoisePop literary series at San Francisco's Beauty Bar. The theme was "Sex, Drugs, & Rock 'n Roll" and Bucky appeared on the drugs night, though he assured the audience, repeatedly, that all his substance abuse happened in the past. One of the editors at local self-help publishing company Red Wheel/Weiser approached him afterward with the book offer. At first Bucky demurred. "I saw all the new age titles, the Wiccan titles, spirituality — I don't know anything about that." But the editor cajoled him, certain that an "anti-spirituality" spirituality book was just what Red Wheel needed to fill out its catalog. Bucky eventually capitulated, signed a contract on October 15, and turned his first draft in three months later.

After a bit of reorganizing and retooling, Get Up became what it is now: a smart, snide, blasphemous self-help book written in a countercultural voice. Bucky presents himself as being wary of self-help, but uses the template anyway. It's an odd marriage that will allow both him and Red Wheel/Weiser to infiltrate a market they otherwise never would have reached. And it seems to work. Bucky's first sentence pretty much sums up the idea: "This is a recovery book written by a guy who never thought he'd read one all the way through."


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