THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT

A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage
By Drew Magary
288 pp. Harmony. $27.

When Magary woke up in a hospital on Dec. 19, 2018, tubes everywhere, he figured he had lost a fistfight. In truth, though, he’d had an accident in a New York bar, either caused by or resulting in a brain hemorrhage. After two weeks in an induced coma, he was lucky to be alive.

Magary’s memoir, “The Night the Lights Went Out,” focuses on what he’s lost: initially, the ability to walk unassisted, his senses of taste and smell, the hearing in one ear. He’s impatient to be himself again and, for both financial and identity reasons, to get back to work as a writer. (At the time a columnist for Deadspin, he now writes for Defector.) Magary is known for a wit so caustic it can almost make you pity his targets. Like his journalism, this memoir is barstool-banter friendly (“gonna” appears 70 times by my count) and reaches for laughs.

It’s not until the end of the book that Magary, realizing he’s still barking at his wife and three kids, decides to see a therapist for his anger issues. “You’ve probably been screaming SEE A SHRINK since the prologue,” he writes. (More like murmuring, but yes.) This emotional work enables him to put a sweet bow on the story. But while Magary delivers a detailed description of the inner workings of cochlear implants, he doesn’t examine himself all that closely. The most moving part of this memoir is an oral history, a debriefing of friends and family who were with him throughout his hospital stay. Incongruously, that’s where you feel you get to know Magary best.

SMILE
The Story of a Face

By Sarah Ruhl
256 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.

After a high-risk second pregnancy, complete with months of bed rest and a bout with a liver disease that could kill the twins she’s carrying, Ruhl (a well-known playwright) successfully gives birth to a girl, Hope, and a boy, William. Then her lactation consultant notices that her left eye looks droopy.

Ruhl looks in the mirror and sees that the left side of her face has fallen. She’s diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which could right itself within months, or longer, or perhaps never. In the meantime, her smile is gone. “This is the story of my asking it to come back,” she writes.

Although Ruhl tries everything from physical therapy to acupuncture to dietary changes, including giving up gluten when she learns she has celiac disease, “Smile” is not a play-by-play of treatments so much as it is a rumination about faces and specifically smiles, including what they mean across cultures, and for her particularly. Like so many women, she is accustomed to ingratiating with a smile — for a year in high school she made a point of grinning at everyone in the halls to see if they’d smile back. Without it, Ruhl’s face feels “frozen.” She has other ways to express herself — Ruhl has been a finalist for the Pulitzer twice and received a MacArthur grant — but art and words are not enough.

Ruhl recognizes her miracle-free narrative as a hard sell: “A woman slowly gets better. What kind of a story is that?” She takes detours into theology and her life in the theater, including confronting a sense that the Bell’s palsy marked a dividing line between her early success and later work. Some sections of this slim book may feel padded (unless you’re riveted by the subject of gluten), and Ruhl’s detective work into her family medical history is speculative enough to feel tangential.

But there’s something pleasing about the memoir’s deliberately slow pace, mimicking Ruhl’s recovery over 10 years. A partial recovery, she realizes, is very much like life itself: “Who, after all, is fully recovered from life?”

RUNNING IS A KIND OF DREAMING
By J. M. Thompson
320 pp. HarperOne/HarperCollins. $27.99.

Ultrarunners have baffling capabilities, in much the same way those migratory birds that stay aloft for weeks and even months do. You know they can do it and have done it and will do it again — but still, it hardly seems possible.

Introducing himself as he is setting out on the Tahoe 200, a 205-mile race around the mountains that ring Lake Tahoe, Thompson acknowledges how insane such races and those who participate in them can seem. “Am I out of my mind?” His answer to the reader is tinged with an assurance that also poses a fresh puzzle: “Not anymore.”

Like Magary and Ruhl, Thompson is a person in midlife, recovering, but his cure lies in the intentional self-infliction of a kind of trauma on the body. While trying to maintain sobriety, he decided to rebuild himself through running. To become “bionic.” Running cleanses or heals or replaces the internal trauma and mental health issues that led him to his drug and alcohol addictions and suicidal ideation in his 30s. Today he’s the father of two and a clinical psychologist, one who clearly relishes breaking what he believes to be an unspoken, and mistaken, code not to share personal mental health issues.

The Tahoe 200, broken up into increasingly exhausted stages, provides a framework for the narrative of his earlier, traumatized life. It’s a promising approach, but Thompson is coy about the details of what happened to him, interspersed in a nonlinear fashion. Sometimes that’s his only choice, since his memory is imperfect. Other times it feels like a deliberate vagueness, meant to tease us until he gets over the next ridge.

Ultimately the memoir, like the race itself, is an erratic slog. There’s rhapsodizing about Burning Man, some stream of consciousness (including cutesy conversations with “Charlie,” Thompson’s code for cocaine), philosophy (Plato pops up) and the supremely mundane matter of refueling at food and aid stations: “I sip the soda. Yum.” Memoirs are by nature the stuff of self-indulgence. But that’s for the first and second drafts, not the one the reader receives.

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