I Left It on the Mountain: A Memoir by Kevin Sessums; St. Martin’s Press, $25.99
Kevin Sessums’ autobiography Mississippi Sissy, about a young gay boy growing up in the segregated South who was orphaned by 9, molested at 13, and became obsessed by Hollywood as a way of coping with his loneliness and homosexuality, deservedly became a 2007 New York Times bestseller. Readers enchanted by that book are going to be disappointed with his new memoir. I Left It on the Mountain has the misfortune of dealing with the harrowing story of Kevin’s unraveling after his success, discovering he is HIV+ as well as a sex and drug addict. The problem with his new book is not the content of his life, but the way his journey is told. Much of the memoir is based on reporting and scenes already covered for magazines like Parade, Los Angeles Confidential, and The Daily Beast, so the book is a loosely related compendium stitched together disjointedly to form the skeleton of a memoir. The end result is not greater than the sum of its parts. Regrettably, it lacks the coherent literary narrative structure and emotional panache of its predecessor.
Sessums continues his obsession with celebrities, to his detriment. He has been praised for his incisive portraits of the famous under Andy Warhol’s guidance at Interview and Tina Brown’s and Graydon Carter’s instruction at Vanity Fair. He is a canny interviewer able to get stars to spill truths about themselves. Many of these big names are profiled here, such as Madonna, Courtney Love, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Lange, Barbara Streisand, Michael J. Fox, Michelle Williams among others, some acting as insipid spiritual advisors (Diane Sawyer: Be better) while Sessums is either high or hung over. Still, much of this gossipy chatter seems like filler. Also frustrating is the repetition of material already covered in his previous memoir, about his growing up in Mississippi.
The bulk of the memoir details Sessums’ bleak descent into cocaine and methamphetamine addiction, as well as two episodes focusing on recovery episodes. One is climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, and the other is walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo pilgrimage trail in Spain. The former is undertaken as a coping mechanism to deal with his HIV+ diagnosis at 50. The latter is sketched out in journal notes he kept while trekking. Unfortunately, despite both pieces being confessional, they are awash in platitudes and New Age babble, such as leaving the Chaga or Forgiveness Plant on the Kilimanjaro mountain (hence the title of the book), signifying Sessums has forgiven himself. Whatever spiritual lessons were gleaned are obtuse, at least to this reader.
Sessums portrays his inner and outer demons (hallucinations about Lucifer) in exquisite narcissistic detail. His detached observer writing style works to his advantage here, as aloofness and indifference are important personal themes in his decline. Sessums is forthright about how he hits rock bottom, becoming both financially and spiritually broke, reduced to $5 cash and $1.23 in the bank at his lowest point. The author’s candor and humor serve him well as he guides us through his own Inferno. I admire his willingness to reveal how unlikable he has become because of his crystal meth use, and how he exploits and betrays his friends, burning every bridge. It will take the unexpected death from a drug overdose of his best friend, a Hollywood producer and novelist, to lead him to seek the professional help he needs.
No detail of his downfall is left out, including homelessness and dark depression as he engages intravenous drug dealers and pays male prostitutes for sex. In all his overwrought adventures he always has an eye for beautiful young men, occasionally in a creepy, predatory manner. His graphic descriptions (i.e., shoving coke up an orifice where the sun doesn’t shine) are not for the squeamish, and while some will applaud his honesty, others will fall into the too-much-information-provided camp. But it’s telling that the most emotionally authentic portions of the book are not with other people, but with his two dogs Archie and Ted, especially when he must temporarily surrender them in order to achieve sobriety.
Prior to the publication date of the book, Sessums had been clean for eight months. The reader can only hope that he has turned the corner on his Via Dolorosa. It’s my hope that having embraced recovery, Sessums will rediscover the charm, joviality, and astuteness of his first book in his next work, all of which are sadly lacking in I Left It on the Mountain .
Sessums will read from the book on March 24, 7:30 p.m., at Books, Inc., 2275 Market St., SF.