Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton
By Ben Gwin
Burrow Press, 320 pp., $17
Ben Gwin’s debut novel, Clean Time, is a satire. Its publisher, Burrow Press, wants you to know that—the word “satire” is used several times on the back cover. Ben Gwin, too, wants you to know it. His style is shot through with deadpan humor, even while narrating fast-paced or slapstick action. And there is an awful lot of action in this book.
Ronald Reagan Middleton—so named because, as we learn in an endnote, “According to [his brother] Bob, RR was conceived on the day President Reagan’s head was blasted into Mount Rushmore”—is the hero of Gwin’s drug-fueled adventure story. He is a former high school baseball star, who makes the play of the century for his high school team, yet injures his shoulder, requiring several surgeries—along with the pain medication prescribed during recovery—to heal. His promising baseball career finished, Ronald Reagan develops an addiction to opioids and other hard drugs. When a local dealer winds up dead, Ronald Reagan is caught fleeing with his girlfriend, Jacky, and lands himself in jail; his wealthy parents pull strings to send him to the Rose-Thorn Recovery Center, where he becomes, as a condition of his parole, a contestant on Clean Time, which is The Recovery Channel’s latest hit series, funded by Philson & Jackson Co., the pharmaceutical giant where Ronald Reagan’s father works as an executive.
By the time Ronald Reagan—and he is almost always referred to as Ronald Reagan—escapes from Rose-Thorn, along with Althea, the other addict with the highest “approval ratings,” they have both become famous, which makes their trip south, back to North Carolina all the more difficult. The story jumps quickly from location to location, as Ronald Reagan first re-ups on Nedvedol, a new opioid, the effects of which “vary with each individual’s neural hardwiring,” from the stockpile conveniently stashed by his father in his parents’ basement, then tries to trade the drugs for cash and a car to get himself away, on to Atlanta. We are dislocated all the more by the fact that Gwin has framed his hero’s story as a memoir, compiled and added to by Harold Swanger, a roundly pathetic doctoral student who accidentally comes into possession of Ronald Reagan’s writing—the scraps of a memoir begun in a prison creative writing class. Swanger includes excerpts of the script of Clean Time (the show) and interviews with several of the book’s characters, and he frequently interrupts the narrative to make flimsy connections to Greek mythology through endnotes, which in themselves are a biting satire of academic writing.
To make matters worse, Ronald Reagan fears for his life, as a serial killer has begun successfully catching up with and killing the addicts who have been dismissed from Clean Time due to their low “approval ratings” or have escaped.
Clean Time announces itself as a satire almost immediately through the foreword, in which Harold Swanger sets up the tale in a bombastically academic tone:
The importance of Ronald Reagan’s journey as it relates to present day American storytelling and culture cannot be understated, specifically the echoes of Odysseus’ journey therein. America desperately needs a hero, a figure to look to in these turbulent times marred by political strife, class struggles, and rampant drug addiction. A flawed hero who encapsulates what is possible in this great country…a contemporary mythological figure.
Isolated and pulled from the book, this feels like a framing device drawn straight from Pale Fire: an unreliable academic who’s grasping at straws in his efforts to make meaning out of this story he’s found. But Gwin is sly, aware of the Nabokovian subversion become convention. His “foreword” is actually the second part of the opening. First, Gwin—via Swanger—gives us a brief scene, narrated by Ronald Reagan: He is on a Greyhound to Atlanta, when the bus comes to a stop in front of a roadblock next to a crime scene, where Justin, a local drug dealer, hangs from a tree, dead. A cop boards the bus, and would like a word with Ronald Reagan. Temporally, this is the culmination of the first part of the five-part novel that follows. Though he was not responsible for Justin’s murder, he played a role in the events leading to it, and so this is Ronald Reagan’s “bottom,” the event that sends him to jail and, eventually, to rehab. We hear his voice. We live in his mind. Swanger opens in medias res, as it is important to the broader mythological themes he wants to explore through Ronald Reagan’s story—and its parallels, both drawn by him and contrived by Swanger, to Odysseus’ story. But we’re not there yet. We haven’t met Swanger. For all we know, we might be reading an ordinary recovery memoir, beginning at the crux of the story, the point of no return.
Less than two pages later, all that is interrupted. Doctoral candidate Harold Swanger plods on about the assembly of the manuscript, the way he came into possession of the story, and his difficulties in filling gaps in Ronald Reagan’s manuscript, until Ronald Reagan’s voice appears, once again, through the memoir he’d begun in prison.
It is this very disconnect—between primary source and storyteller, between addict and entertainer, between public fame and inner life—that Gwin is exploring with Clean Time, and it is where some of his most barbed satire pierces through the American cultural tendency to view fame as the ultimate palliative and exposes a world of pain beneath all our self-medication.
I spent a lot of time while reading Clean Time thinking about the direction of its satire. Satire is weaponized humor and it is always political. It matters to whom it is directed. We may think of Saturday Night Live mocking our elected leaders as a virtuous humor that acts as a leveling force, cutting the Big People down to size, even as the same program has been rightly criticized for its past sketches satirizing campus activists working for gender and sexual equality as “Victim Studies Majors.” That sort of satire can amount to bullying, picking on a group who is less empowered politically.
But in Clean Time, I can’t always tell who’s being sent up. Is it reality TV? Is it Ronald Reagan Middleton? President Ronald Reagan or his supporters? Memoirs of addiction? Overzealous academics? Overzealous temperance advocates? Prescription drug companies? America itself? Us, the readers? Us, all of us, Americans?
Gwin’s writing is the strongest when he’s working with complicated characters, the sort who are not so easy to satirize. For example, Gwin’s descriptions of White Reggie, a white hipster poet who “had inherited a couple million bucks from his dead uncle, but demanded his dad get him a blue collar job so he could better understand the working poor and more accurately depict their plight,” leave little doubt about what we are to think of Reggie. And indeed, he comes off in the book as an easy target for satire—hilarious, no doubt, though not the most interesting or complex of characters. But we can tell the love Gwin has for many of his characters. As the action of the book winds down, for example, we get this bit of fantasy, in Ronald Reagan’s voice:
I went in and out of this dream where I was in Georgia with Jacky. The two of us in that little house. I sat in the living room and wrote while she played Justin’s piano, and it was beautiful. She was a virtuoso. We lived our lives, smoking pot but keeping off the hard stuff. We walked along the quiet Georgia beach in the morning before heading off to our honest jobs—I was a minor league third base coach, and Jacky taught piano lessons. Our lives were boring, we agreed, but we were adjusting. Together, we could make it work. I’d never been more certain of anything.
There is no satire here. This is heartfelt, tender writing, and it is hopeful, tragic, showing a man who might never achieve the normal, boring life he craves, nonetheless dreaming of it. But we never know. Maybe Ronald Reagan gets away—from his addiction, from his family, from the people pursuing him—and maybe he doesn’t. Gwin has set us up to believe that the societal forces that have helped to put Ronald Reagan in his myriad predicaments might win out. That’s the cruelest joke of all, and we feel deeply for Ronald Reagan here.
Most of the characters in Clean Time get such a moment, even those we are patently meant to laugh at, where we see a facet of their personality or disposition that complicates our initial perception of them, makes more human the exaggeration or caricature that makes the satire possible.
Perhaps Ben Gwin’s greatest accomplishment in Clean Time is that he has managed such a complexity in this post-modern epic that, despite the novel’s sharply-observed microscope on American entertainment, reveals a tenderness and compassion for its characters and subject matter that reminds me of Paul Beatty, A.M. Homes, and George Saunders: American writers who all tiptoe the line between magnifying the absurdities of American life with raucous transgression—and loving it all the same.
I enjoyed myself reading Clean Time; I laughed out loud, but also stopped to scratch my head. It’s a satire with depth, an adventure story with tenderness, and a screed against the cultural value of fame in American life that nonetheless remains playful from start to finish; Ben Gwin’s debut is the arrival of a voice equally attuned to humor and to the very serious political realities revealed by that humor, and willing to engage seriously with the cultural milieu he’s critiquing, even as he makes us laugh in the process.