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I Left It on the Mountain: celebrity sleuthing turned on the master


Kevin Sessums' new memoir, I Left It on the Mountain, is, for the most part, an extraordinary read: Sessums is an extraordinary writer. While his name may not be familiar, most of the world, definitely all of the gay world, has read some of his writing. Sessums worked both for Andy Warhol as the editor of Interview magazine and as a writer for Vanity Fair, and he applies the skills he learned at those jobs - an eye for the telling detail, name-dropping, a bit of poetic license, a mining of childhood trauma, ecstasy at revealing dirt and the cracks in the facade - to himself in I Left It on the Mountain.

And just as he got celebrities to reveal secrets, Sessums holds nothing back. The first half of the book is a masterful linkage of childhood to adulthood with symbols and metaphors linking back upon each other in an immensely satisfying way. And a dramatically deceptive way. It all fits a little too well. As Sessums writes about one of his closest friendships,

Perry and I believed in kismet . . . it's one of the things we shared: the love of narrative in one's own life . . . Moreover, Perry and I - as southern boys at our core - couldn't shake the religious faith that had been inculcated into us by our upbringing and had to find ways to incorporate it into our lives as gay New Yorkers...

Life as an adjunct to celebrities fails to satisfy and Sessums attempted to bolster his self-confidence with sex and drugs. That combination resulted in becoming HIV+ and a meth addict. The third quarter of the book documents Sessums' attempts to get clean and achieve some balance in his life. He adopts two dogs, climbs Mount Kilimanjaro, walks the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo and hibernates in Provincetown. 

The journals he kept while walking the Camino (shades of Shirley MacLaine) form a formidable portion of the book. For the most part they are fascinating and even when a spooky taste of spiritualism begins cropping up, the story feels rooted. That does not last. Sessums' final battle for sobriety is rendered as a CGI extravaganza starring Sessums, Lucifer and the Indian elephant god Ganesh. 

Sessums knows he is treading a fine line but seems to feel compelled to tell what he sees as the truth. It is indeed a strong warning against meth use though not all of us would get advice from Diane Sawyer, Courtney Love, Hugh Jackman or Daniel Radcliffe when we were hurtling towards rock bottom. Sessums doesn't spare himself and I lost empathy when he began neglecting and then abandoned his dogs. It is again an addiction memoir from the privileged and, though Sessums handles it well, parts of it, including the flights of religiosity, grate.

But, in the same way I would devour one of Sessums' Vanity Fair or Interview profiles of an actor, writer, fashionista, etc, whether I admired them or not, I Left It on the Mountain stayed close at hand until I was finished reading. I'm very glad that Sessums has kicked his meth addiction, I am grateful to him for at least three quarters of I Left It on the Mountain (and I am going to read his earlier memoir Mississippi Sissy that has been sitting for years on the shelf of books to be read asap - I wasn't cognizant of who Sessums was and how good a writer he is), and I look forward to whatever it is he writes next.