“Ben Gwin writes like F. Scott Fitzgerald high on meth and Clean Time is The Great Gatsby for a generation that thinks fame is the answer to every question.”–Lori Jakiela, Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker
“Clean Time is a prescient mash-up of the heartland opioid crisis, violent backwoods populism, and the hallucinatory, celebrity-obsessed world of reality television… a nightmarish dispatch from America in the age of Donald Trump.”–Derek Green, New World Order
Framed as the drug-addled memoir of addict-turned-reality TV star Ronald Reagan Middleton (annotated and published by floundering doctoral candidate Harold Swanger), Clean Time is a darkly comic satire set in a near-future America ravaged by addiction.
Beginning with journals written in jail, Ronald Reagan recounts his days in Booth, North Carolina, where he had a semblance of peace, a job manually distressing designer jeans, and a girlfriend with a lucrative drug dealing operation. After his inevitable arrest, Ronald Reagan’s parents send him to a North Jersey rehab center, which doubles as the set of The Recovery Channel’s reality TV show, Clean Time. Here, Ronald Reagan is prescribed Nedvedol, a new drug engineered to end all addiction. His viewer ratings spike as he interacts with fellow addicts and meets a new love interest, quickly achieving celebrity status. Though he seems happy performing for the cameras, his journals tell a different story. He’s become dependent on Nedvedol and can think of only one thing: escape.
Chased from rehab back to his squalid life in Booth by a salacious TV producer, a relapsing counselor, and a serial killer who targets addicts, Ronald Reagan struggles to stay clean while continuing to hit new bottoms.
As Ronald Reagan’s life spirals out of control, Harold Swanger’s narrative interruptions become more frequent, his endnotes increasingly dubious. In a poor attempt at academic notoriety, Swanger presents Ronald Reagan not as a troubled, lost, and obnoxiously privileged drug addict, but as a new kind of American hero.
In this sprawling and ambitious debut novel, Ben Gwin masterfully balances farce and irony with a genuine compassion for the large cast of characters that fumble through a nightmarish and all-too-familiar version of America.