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22 March 2016

Excess all areas: Jack Sutherland’s gripping memoir of pharmaceutical excess

Sutherland’s book is one of the funniest and least self-righteous works on addiction that I have read in a long while.

By Ian Thomson

Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes describe the “moment of clarity”, when the addict finally understands that liquor has got him well and truly licked. Of course, the addict is never really cured. Addiction is the vexing devil that creeps up on you insidiously and unawares. Call it a chemical misfortune, if you like: it can kill you just the same.

The British-born Jack Sutherland was only nine years old when a bottle of Thunderbird wine gave him the illusion of drink-fuelled happiness. From then, it was downhill. The more he drank, drugged, sucked the bong or otherwise self-medicated, the further removed he seemed from the like­lihood of any sort of twinge of conscience, let alone crapula (that splendid 17th-century word for the sickness attendant on ex­cessive drinking).

Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth, ghosted by the author’s adoptive father, the literary critic John Sutherland, is a harrowing, tragicomic account of addiction and its crapulous aftermath. Born in 1973 to a Dublin saleswoman who got into “trouble” with a married man, Jack was put up for adoption as a baby. John Sutherland and his wife took him into their south London home. With its tottering piles of books and “eggheaded” atmosphere of academe, the Herne Hill residence might have been a haven. Unfortunately, Jack’s father was an alcoholic; when not teaching English, he drank, at times until he blacked out, and indulged in drawn-out benders with fewer and fewer intervals of sobriety in between. One day, we read, he smashed up a Scientology church on Tottenham Court Road after it had the effrontery to offer him an “intelligence test”.

In 1983, Professor Sutherland was sent to teach in the United States and, heroically, he attained a lifelong sobriety. Jack was nine at the time. At his school in South Pasadena, he began to drink vodka, discovered that he was gay, dropped acid and puffed his way through bagfuls of chronic. A child psychologist tendered him cups of herbal tea but missed the toxic drug habit. Either Jack was going to die young (or, at any rate, years before his time) or he was going to have to clean up. He chose neither.

In pages of street-savvy, Raymond Chandler-style prose, Sutherland father and son narrate a life of “party-monstering” and casual gay chemsex with Latino men. The self-pleasuring took on a manic, predatory edge. As a chauffeur and PA to Hollywood actors and pop stars in the early 2000s, Jack was all too familiar with the accidents, illnesses, social impairments and other damage caused by intoxicants. Behind the wheel of his flash (unstretched) Lincoln, he maintains a Jeeves-like air of imperturbability. “The first rule for limo chauffeurs is don’t eyeball the client,” he explains. Jack is valued for his solicitude and courtesy but the cracks begin to show.

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Mickey Rourke, an actor not normally known for his sobriety, is moved to tell him: “You are the biggest fuck-up I have ever known in the whole of my life.” The year is 2010 and Jack’s life is marked now by low self-esteem and squalid self-denial. In the course of his self-ruination, he has bought himself a gun, become “crystal-crazy” on large quantities of methamphetamine, run foul of the Mexican police and spent nights in Hispanic gay dives. His double life as a suited limo driver by day and alcoholic gay sex addict by night cannot be sustained. The previous night’s drinking is remembered (if remembered at all) with bewilderment and guilt.

Back in England in 2010, having acted as factotum to Michael Stipe of REM, the Dalai Lama and the cabaret drag queen RuPaul, Jack sets up a specialist security company involving door supervision and bodyguard work. After years of chemical and alcoholic self-abuse, he attends AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) rehab sessions and is finally clean and sober. (“Today I am happy and blessed,” he says, in the “pink cloud” speak of early sobriety.)

Along the way, his memoir, by turns gossipy and tragic, tells us much about the US chauffeured transportation business. Rappers may be the worst tippers (“The bling stops cold when they have to dip their hands in their pockets for whitey at the wheel”) and tuxedoed prom teenagers are universally loathed because they leave bodily fluids on the limo upholstery. Sutherland’s book is one of the funniest and least self-righteous works on addiction that I have read in a long while. Cheers (or not) – here’s looking at his recovery. 

Stars, Cars and Crystal Meth: the Adventures of a Personal Assistant Who Really Could Have Used One Himself by Jack Sutherland, with John Sutherland is published by Faber & Faber (368pp, £12.99)

This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue