With funny functioning family guy observations replacing funny screwup single guy stories everywhere else, The Other Great Depression, an accretion of essays approaching an autobiography, arrives at a particularly good time in the unmarried, 53 year old standup comic Richard Lewis’ career – and life. The author subtitles his book ”How I’m overcoming, on a daily basis, at least a million addictions and dysfunctions and finding a spiritual (sometimes) life,” and he’s not kidding.
Behind the familiar exaggerated personality of a miserable man turns out to be a man even more miserable than comedy club audiences can conceive. Plus, Lewis announces with jittery courage, he’s a raging, recovering drunk. ”I was an alcoholic for the better part of two decades,” he declares.
Although he’s been sober for almost seven years, Lewis writes with an addict’s jumpy restlessness, staggering from hurt to hurt, from tensely jokey confession to confession, from twitchy spiritual discovery to discovery. His literary style is unsteady and stained with bar glass rings of cliché (”I was drinking with such reckless abandon that I was spiraling out of control”; ”I was at the end of my rope as they say”). His narrative can’t walk a straight line, and he veers from incident to incident, sloshing and spilling time.
”Alcoholism had me by the throat and my punch lines were willingly put in mothballs,” he writes about a period when he stopped doing stand up. ”So it went for a few years… this was soon after I had finished four seasons costarring… in the television series ‘Anything but Love.”’ But then in the next paragraph he begins, ”A few years before I bottomed,” going on to describe his embarrassing, drunken behavior at a fancy movie premiere. Are these few years the same few years?
It may not matter. The weird power of this urgent, nervous, heartfelt book doesn’t lie in the individual facts, however eyebrow raising (he lost his virginity in his parents’ bed, he makes all his girlfriends watch ”Last Tango in Paris”), but in the amassed mess of those million dysfunctions – of which the messiest is his complicated hating, needing, addictive attraction repulsion to women. And this, he forthrightly, unpopularly describes, only became worse once he no longer had drink to fog up his actions.
This isn’t a nice book, a coherent book, or even much of a funny one. But it’s an honest one, which, for a comic, is an act as risky as commitment, and as liberating.