Framed as a memoir, Ben Gwin’s debut novel Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton chronicles the travails of Ronald Reagan Middleton, a meth-addict become reality TV star on the hit show Clean Time, where addicts compete for public popularity and, in turn, the right to receive treatment. It’s a biting satire of celebrity worship, academia, and the subjugation of the individual beneath the destructive cycles of capitalism. Drawing from (and satirizing) the postmodern tradition, Clean Time presents Ronald Reagan’s story through the perspective of aspiring academic Harold Swanger, who frames RR’s journals alongside letters, memos, and TV screenplays (and drawing absurd parallels to Homer’s The Odyssey along the way) in order to argue for the “new American hero” this ravaged country desperately needs. Amidst the numerous layers of satire, the novel offers an empathetic look into the psyche of an addict whose circumstances and decisions led him down a dark path intertwined with the policies of the President of his namesake.
I spoke with Ben at length about Clean Time, and our conversation meandered through Ronald Reagan’s influence on his work, the significance of reality TV, the nature of addiction, and, ultimately, the importance of finding empathy amidst the political chaos surrounding us in 2018, which may never have arisen without Ronald Reagan.
Sean Lawlor: The book is called Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton. I’m curious about the idea of the “true story,” and the notion of truth in general. No one in the book seems to know Ronald Reagan Middleton’s true story. Even the narrator, Harold Swanger, is sort of piecing it together.
Ben Gwin: My idea with that was to play with the idea of truth in fiction, truth in memoir, truth in nonfiction, and how authorial liberties can be taken along those lines. Initially, I was speaking to the Million Little Pieces thing, and how Frey wrote this engaging book, and everyone was like, “Oh, this is so great!” cause they thought it was real, and then when they realized he made some stuff up, everyone suddenly hated it. That’s interesting to me. And it plays into the reality TV angle, and how fake that obviously is. As the story starts, nobody knows what happened to Ronald Reagan.
SL: Might as well get this question out there: Why Ronald Reagan?
BG: Up until very recently, I felt he was the worst president of my lifetime. But people love him. You even have Democrats now saying, “Well, Reagan never would have put up with this!” And really, he probably would have. But politics aside, I thought it was a funny name for the guy, with this background of his parents loving President Reagan. It helps set the satirical tone of the book.
SL: I was raised under the “Ronald Reagan is a saint!” mentality, and I never really asked why. It was more in the last few years that I started hearing the other side of the story, a story of a massive increase in wage gap, a massive privileging of the rich, an increase in prison populations — basically, whole worlds of untold stories of the underprivileged.
BG: Oh yeah. Especially with the crack epidemic then, and the laws put into place that disproportionately affected African Americans. And the big tax cuts for the rich. And also the “Just Say No” thing, and “Hugs Not Drugs.” That’s what I had in mind there, to be ironic with naming this guy Ronald Reagan and his being a meth addict.
SL: Let’s talk a little about reality TV, which is obviously at the heart of your book.
BG: Right. I mean, when I finished writing it in 2011, I hoped reality TV would still be relevant by the time this is published, and not just some kind of fad that comes and goes and just totally dates the book. But that didn’t happen. It’s just all really weird, sort of like staging this event in front of people. I don’t watch a lot of it myself, since Road Rules, which also dates me.
SL: Probably for the best.
BG: Yeah, probably. But at the same time, some of the smartest people I know really enjoy it. It’s really bizarre.
SL: Your book made me think of the famous Double Slit Experiment of Quantum Physics, which showed the act of perceiving alters the object perceived. I was thinking of that in the context of reality TV, because there are parts where Ronald Reagan performs in a particular way to incite a particular response in the audience, but they are perceiving his performance as reality. But the real reality is far beyond anything captured in this makeshift setting, which actually has no true humanity in it.
BG: And that also allowed me to get into addict behavior of scamming people, putting on whatever mask you have to in order to get what you want from somebody, that kind of manipulative behavior of addicts and the performative shit that goes on. Most of the thematic stuff came through revision. I was primarily concerned with writing an engaging story.
SL: It also seemed there was a parallel to the American political process, since this guy’s name is Ronald Reagan. I just kept thinking how Ronald Reagan’s this actor who becomes President. He’s a performer.
BG: Right. That was a big part of it, too, Ronald Reagan being a fucking actor, and then we elected this asshole president. Might as well have been fucking John Wayne, right? It’s also an unfortunate parallel to what’s going on in our country right now. I kind of worried that it would make Ronald Reagan Middleton less sympathetic. I don’t know that he’s a totally sympathetic character as it is, but I wanted to have those things sort of working against him — like even his successes lead to failure. I hope I set it up well enough that the character was still sympathetic, even though he was named Ronald Reagan.
SL: You did. And I’m not giving that enough credit, because I’ve only talked about it as an allegory so far. But it was clear you weren’t just interested in an allegorical satire. You were interested in a character study with allegorical and satirical elements.
BG: That’s what I had hoped to accomplish. It’s hard to write that kind of allegory and to have that parallel and comment on those things when the main character is named Ronald Reagan, and you don’t want him to be the Reagan-esque figure. So that complicated it. But some of it’s pretty direct, where some Clean Time viewers just voted for him due to his name. It was certainly something to have fun with and to try to use to my advantage as an author.
SL: By having the name Ronald Reagan, I didn’t take him as a Ronald Reagan stand-in. I took him more as a guy most heavily affected by the shitty realities that Ronald Reagan the president exacerbated, the cycles of suffering and addiction and criminalization.
BG: Yeah. That was one of the most overt parallels in the book: the deregulation of pharmaceutical companies, and big conglomerates and shit, and the effect that has on the individual representing the effect that has on the country, you know?
SL: Yeah. Cause his father is high up in the pharmaceutical industry and has unlimited access to this new drug, Nedvedol, that’s supposed to cure all addiction, but then Ronald Reagan just gets addicted to that shit.
SL: So there’s a capitalist critique, too, where you’re profiting off the suffering of people and throwing them into deeper cycles of addiction in order to increase your revenue.
BG: And then literally having them fight each other for your own entertainment.
SL: Because the pharmaceutical company is behind the production of the show Clean Time, right?
BG: It’s the circle of life.
SL: How did you wrestle with the sense of hopelessness? Is there any hope to this dude’s life?
BG: I wanted to leave it as open-ended as I could. I feel like it would have been too easy for him to get clean, and have it like, Well, shit works out! where he’s grinding out a shitty existence, washing dishes and going to meetings. I wanted to have it as dramatically written as possible and still leave the possibility of hope there without the happy ending.
SL: There was just an overwhelming sense of tragedy to the lives of addicts, which is realistic. You’re bringing awareness to someone who’s afflicted with cycles of suffering and addiction that mainstream society, especially Ronald Reagan echelons of wealth and privilege, often completely ignore.
BG: Until it’s their kid, you know? I tried to be as fair as possible and not totally disregard the idea of responsibility and accountability, cause that’s part of it. And I tried to show how there’s many different ways to get clean. How much of that is personal responsibility, of not putting yourself in that situation? And how much is luck? And genetics? And sort of feeling hopeless to begin with and looking for some kind of escape? I wanted to present that in a way that was fair, as honestly as I could, and still be sympathetic and funny. I guess it was ambitious. But I really set out to write a novel about addiction.
SL: The whole novel is ambitious. At a structural level, was it maddening to try to keep that all together?
BG: Yeah. It was awful. I had a really, really great editor. Ryan Rivas at Burrow Press is fantastic. He worked with me to get the story I wanted to tell told as best we could. And he helped keep track of the endnotes. I think the structure fits the content, and I think the narrator, Harold Swanger, would put a book together like that. I think it adds to the satire. It was difficult, but I had a lot of help from my editor making everything consistent. I’m really thrilled with how it turned out, to be honest. It couldn’t have landed at a better place.
SL: The structure also enhanced Ronald Reagan’s isolation. There’s an increasing distance from him, as Swanger’s looks at various lost and found documents and rearranging them to fit his purposes. So, amidst this extra layer of academia, who is Ronald Reagan? Well, no one knows, and no one knows where he is.
BG: I tried to heighten that as much as I could, to have a natural arc to the edifice of it, and how it was put together, and the increasing ridiculousness of some of the endnotes.
SL: And there’s an implicit critique of academia in general that you were going for?
BG: Oh yeah. I think there’s some fantastic pop culture writing, and I think it absolutely merits study, but essentially Swanger put together a 350-page annotated work about a reality television star and made all these wild connections to try and justify it. I tried to take that to the most ridiculous ends I could, just like literary criticism in general, and adding to the idea of this pop culture hero worship that we have for famous people that don’t necessarily deserve any kind of fame. It’s like, this drug addict gets put on television, and he’s trying to do the right thing, but through accident, and opportunity, and privilege, he gets put in that space.
SL: I guess you’re influenced by postmodernism?
BG: For sure.
SL: But it seems you’re aware of what David Foster Wallace called the “traps” of postmodernism, where literature becomes self-referential without any purpose beyond that.
BG: I tried to be as self-aware as possible with it. It’s a satire of postmodernist structure, too. I wanted to make fun of Infinite Jest more than I wanted to emulate it. I think Pale Fire was the biggest influence. I tried to have the reliability of the narrator decrease throughout the work. That was kind of fun.
SL: And then it all ends up bringing truth into question again. You don’t really know how much Swanger is editing, or rearranging, or potentially even writing himself, to create this cohesive structure and narrative.
BG: Yeah, for sure.
SL: And this notion of non-truth, and truth being brought into question — it’s more relevant now than ever before, definitely more so than when you set out to write this book. You finished this when Obama was president, right?
SL: It seems it was destined to come out in conjunction with Drumpf, with all this fake news bullshit. I mean, we literally have a reality TV star as president.
BG: It’s fucking weird, man. Writing it, I just wanted to set it far enough in the future so it would be believable. And then now, it’s Infowars everywhere, and conspiracy shit. Donald Drumpf has absolutely no qualifications to be president. But he was on reality TV, and he was born into money. It’s horrible.
SL: Do you see him as a direct successor to Reagan?
BG: Absolutely. I think he’s more openly racist, but that’s about it. Policy-wise, he’s right in line and doing the same things.
SL: More than ever before, the political system is a reality show. No one knows what the fuck’s going on.
BG: I can’t even keep up. It’s all I can do just to take care of myself and my daughter day to day and not freak out. I mean, I don’t have it nearly as bad as a lot of people. But man, it’s awful.
SL: It just all seems really timely to your book — no one knowing what the truth is, everyone worshipping celebrity and entertainment, click bait, and fake news performing well not because of truth value but because it brings revenue for whoever puts it out there.
BG: And then you spend all your time talking about some crazy-ass accusation like Pizzagate instead of discussing real policy reform that will actually benefit our country. And I don’t know how you take all of it back, either. How do you return to normalcy at this point? I don’t know if that can happen.
SL: And meanwhile, all these people are suffering terrible things and just being ignored amidst the circus.
BG: There’s such a lack of empathy for people who are struggling, such a disconnect between how rich people live in this country, and how most of us do. I’m not talking about finding empathy for anyone who voted us into the current situation either, or thinks our president is making the country great again. Fuck those people.
SL: But your book has so much empathy for poor people, and addicts, and people who are getting shit on and not recognized. There was a very empathetic core, and it’s cliché and shit, but amidst this chaos, it feels like a good core to have.
BG: Yeah. And with Ronald Reagan, it’s not like he’s innocent, but I wanted the reader to care for him as much as possible. And minor characters as well, to give them each their own arc instead of just using them as props for the main narrative. My aim was to create a protagonist who was flawed enough to make decisions that would propel the book without it feeling forced, even though it is of course all forced. It’s hard.