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Writer Colin Broderick Photo by: Nuala Purcell

One Irishman's journey from addict to literary star

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Writer Colin Broderick Photo by: Nuala Purcell

Some people live life as though it’ll never end. They start out innocently enough, heaven knows, just a night out at the pub, then off to a club, until soon they’re out every night burning the candle at both ends and smoking the middle.

It’s an exhilarating way to live -- for a while -- but oh, the come down is excruciating. So painful, in fact, that for many Irish lads who still live like this the only option seems to be to start the cycle all over again before you notice what you’ve been up to the week before, trading one sweet oblivion for another.

Writer Colin Broderick, 41, knows all about it. A veteran of almost two decades of drink and class A drugs, he knows what it’s like to wake up after a total blackout.

He’s been to prison for DWI, and he’s even fermented his own prison hooch while banged up to keep his hand in while he was off the streets . . . and sure enough he’s started the whole self-destructive cycle over again the moment he was released.

It’s a mad way to live, he’d be the first to tell you, but for years it was the only way he knew how. And now he’s written all about it in “Orangutan,” a highly touted new book which will be released in December by Three Rivers press, a division of Random House. 

Equally impressive, Broderick is repped by one of New York’s top literary agents, Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Dystel was also the agent for Barack Obama when he released his first best-selling book, “Dreams From My Father.”

“Orangutan,” this columnist’s pick for the book of the year, which can be preordered on Amazon.com, tells Broderick’s story in unflinching detail, sparing everyone except himself in a story that’s so vividly written that at times you feel like you’ve living it alongside him.

Asked what he remembers from the lost years (lost decades, in fact), he tells IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice, “It’s always been strange to me that we have this stigma around drug use, and meanwhile people are staggering down the streets and falling in front of traffic and somehow that’s okay. It’s bizarre that it’s accepted as a social norm when guys who are also involved with drugs are suspect, you know?”

Drugs were always easy to find. And there was no shortage of young Irish lads looking to score some.

Cocaine, for example, may be the drug of choice for Wall Street tycoons, but quite a few Irish carpenters and construction workers like to add it to their nights out too.

“I think it’s absolute escapism. The generation I came over with 20 years ago wasn’t just leaving, they were fleeing Ireland. Not just the country and the weather but also total repression.

“The chance to drink and do drugs was in a way painkillers. We consumed them in great quantities. There was also just so much money so we could afford to do anything we wanted; $400 or $500 a week back 20 years ago added up. I couldn’t drink $500 in a week. And I tried.”

An Irish night out for Broderick in the 1990s often looked like this: “On any given night of the week you’d have some Irish lad passed out on the bar floor. Out cold. They’d always prop him up to prevent him choking on his own vomit. That was how it was back then.

“And there’d be people standing around in groups socializing right next to him. It was as if they couldn’t see him or there was nothing remarkable about it. And when he woke up he’d start drinking again. And I’d do the same.”

Raised in the tiny village of Sixmilecross in County Tyrone, Broderick’s book starts when he arrives in New York City at the age of 21, omitting all the details about his childhood and background. It’s an intentional choice; Broderick only wants to talk about what happened to him after he arrived in the U.S.

“Things back home were pretty bleak, we never had any money and things were pretty rough in that area with the Troubles,” says Broderick.

“The publishers asked me if I would give details about my childhood but I didn’t give them anything at all. We grew up under such a veil of secrecy, we were taught not to speak, not to tell our own story.”

A few years before his arrival in the U.S. he’d been in London drinking and dealing drugs and being, he says, “a general f*** up.” So much so that he had to get out of town.

“At the time I was bouncing from London to Northern Ireland every few months, and the political situation had gotten so bad. It was just after the Loughgall massacre (when eight members of the IRA were gunned down) and I wound up going to three of the wakes in one day. These were young guys I knew. and that was the impetus I needed to get out of town and start afresh.”

When he stepped off the plane at JFK in New York it was the first time in his life he’d ever felt free to be himself. But like many people back then, he was undocumented for years.

“If you were Irish back then you held a get out of jail for free card. I remember being stopped driving a van one day -- it had no front window, no license, no insurance, no registration, no mirrors, no working lights and a policeman pulled me over.

“He put his hand though the window to shake my hand and started laughing. We did the whole, ‘Where are you from? My parents are from Kerry.’ He told me to get it off the road and let me go. There was a lot more Irish on the police force back then. You could get away with murder back then.”

Writers often leave a string of untidy love affairs behind them, and in this Broderick doesn’t disappoint. Wife number one was Mary Ann, when Broderick was 24.

“Basically we were fighting and killing each other and we decided in our wisdom that perhaps if we got married we wouldn’t fight so much. We went off to the courthouse, got married, went for pizza, and resumed fighting worse than ever. We stayed married for four or five months,” he says.

Wife number two came when he was 26. He married her when he was not drinking, and in the six years they were together they lived together in Riverdale and he finished two books (that were not published).

“But the marriage ended due to boredom. I met a 17-year German girl named Brigitte and that was that,” Broderick says.

Broderick’s third wife, Renata, is also a writer and was working at his local bar where he saw her nightly.

“She was seeing someone else at the time and I just waited it out until that concluded. Eventually I called her up when I got out of prison for my DWI and we married and now we have a daughter, Erica.”

When Broderick got involved with the newly minted Bronx Irish Theatre Company in the 1990s it was an experience that ultimately changed his life.

“People who never acted before, or people who wanted to write, all of them suddenly had a home in the Bronx Irish Theatre Company. It was something to do other than go to a bar. It opened up a new avenue in the community,” he says.

The feeling of being alien even in his own community had been a huge problem for Broderick for years. The “Orangutan” that gives the book its name is a reference to his unease in his own skin, the discomfort that led to the lost years.

“It was the awareness of that which led to drinking and doing more drugs. But it was Chris O’Neill of the Bronx Irish Theatre Company who recognized I was a writer and said so. He gave me a lot of encouragement,” recalls Broderick.

“It was the first time someone I admired in the arts told me you could do this. It was a shot in the arm that kept me going over the years.”

Broderick found his agent and publisher in a memorable way, though an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Another attendee, Chris Campion, author of “Escape from Bellevue,” mentioned his agent in a meeting, and Broderick followed him outside to mention his own book.

You can be the man who discovered Colin Broderick, he told Campion. Two days later Broderick had an agent and a book deal. He was asked to address his childhood in the book but he refused, saying he’d tackle that in the follow up.

“As a writer I have to deal with the fact that my childhood was terrifying. I decided that basically I had sobered up two years ago and I just wasn’t ready emotionally to go beyond that point,” Broderick says.

“I wanted to get through the 20 years of heavy drinking and get that out of the way first so I’d have some ground to stand on before I’d go further.

“I think it’s like doing push ups to get myself in shape for the follow up book that I’m now embarked on (Broderick has already sold the sequel to a Random House). It was way to hot to handle and even now it’s scary.

“Our generation grew up and there hasn’t been a book about our experiences yet because I think we’re still recovering from that whole era of secrecy.”

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