Before dbcgreentx.net and I go on a two-week vacation, I feel compelled to copy and paste my latest Goodreads review. Here's my take on Stephanie Wittels Wachs's memoir Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful—a Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss.
Humblebragging is an art form. It's an art form not practiced widely here in Texas, where we're more skilled in traditional braggartry. Even people from Humble, Texas (the initial H is silent) are more likely to straight-up brag on themselves, their loved ones, and of course their state.
To honor Harris Wittels, the man credited with coining "humblebrag," I wanted to start this review with an example thereof. But I'm a shade humbler than most of my neighbors in Texas, and bragging of any type does not come naturally to me. The closest I can get is to say that I know the author, and that I have adored her since my son introduced her to me about a decade ago. At the time, he was a musical theatre student at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and Stephanie Wittels, then about 27, was an adjunct acting coach helping out with stage productions.
Or perhaps I can go a step further to say that I know someone who knows some of the hottest names in modern American comedy, someone who can get Aziz Ansari to write (or in this case recycle material for) a foreword.
As much as I love Ms. Wittels Wachs (hereinafter referred to as "Stephanie") and her contributions to Houston culture, her memoir about coping with the death of her brother is a tad harder to love. In the chapters describing life after Harris's tragic overdose, in which she addresses her late brother in second person, nearly every anecdote leads to a variation on "You weren't here to (see/hear/say/enjoy/help with) some (person/thing/event/ceremony/expedition)."
In the chapters describing interactions with the living Harris, his personality increasingly subsumed by Oxycontin and then by heroin, nearly every anecdote leads to "He failed rehab, and we were 1,500 miles away from him, busy with our own lives, and powerless to help him through the process."
The repetitions of these themes is a very real part of addiction, and it's important for readers to know. But I find that it detracts from an otherwise well-written work of nonfiction.
Like Harris, EIHaW is hard to love, but there is plenty in it to like. For me, favorite bits include Stephanie's depiction of her and Harris's father, Dr. Ellison Wittels, a very funny guy in his own right, who is absolutely devastated by his son's self-inflicted premature death. I also love the way she flavors the narrative with Houston landmarks such as residential streets in Meyerland, charming and overpriced bungalows in the Heights, the late lamented Laff Stop in River Oaks, Kenny & Ziggy's Deli, and (yum) Star Pizza. (She also mentions a visit to a tiki bar, but does not give its name; I would guess that it's the Lei Low, because it's not like this city is infested with tiki bars.)
Stephanie notes early in the book that, before Harris even turned 18, the family would go to showcases and open mics at the Laff Stop, where Harris saw his favorite comics and participated as soon as he was of legal age. Perhaps it's an ultimately pointless quibble, but she doesn't mention Houston's stand-up prophet Bill Hicks by name—or, if she does, I missed it. There's no index to check. Harris Wittels and Hicks had a lot in common beyond growing up in Houston in relatively functional families: They both became known for a transgressive brand of humor, smoked way too much, and died way too early (albeit more mysteriously).
She also notes early on that Harris developed his addiction to painkillers because, as happens with thousands of Americans each year, he had chronic back pain. In the remainder of the memoir, however, the issue of his physical pain never arises. The emphasis returns to Harris's failed attempts at sobriety and romantic relationships, but never to what got him started down his road to perdition. Also missing are any helpful sidebars about what modern science refers to as addictive personalities: How did Harris get hooked so easily, and find it so difficult to kick the habit, while Stephanie was able to give up smoking for good? What about her own consumption of prescription medications like Ambien?
Even more than her coping/not coping with the loss of her brother, I admire Stephanie's courage and candor about her own teen years and early adulthood. Although she was never a troublemaker as a student at HSPVA, a talented but otherwise normal kid with a tightly knit secular Jewish family, she reveals here some youthful dabbling in drugs and sex that could have resulted in big trouble. Leaving the teaching profession certainly made it easier for her to put those stories in print, along with a few hundred f-bombs. It made me imagine a scenario in which, should she try to go back to teaching, some principal or HR director would wave this book in her face and say, "Are you sure you can be a good role model for our students?"
Just adding a conclusion here, since I had to save the review yesterday with a rather abrupt ending. After initially giving EIHaW three stars, I'm officially awarding it an additional star—not because it's on par with other four-star books I've reviewed here, but because I want to keep up the average for Stephanie's sake.
Bonus Trivia & H-Town Name-Dropping Exercise
I now possess autographed copies of Stephanie's book and Jennifer Mathieu's YA novel Moxie, which I recently reviewed on Goodreads. They not only know each other well, but a few years ago they both appeared in segments of a small-budget production of The Love Show assembled by Tamarie Cooper. This happened during the interregnum between the collapse of Infernal Bridegroom Productions and the birth of Catastrophic Theatre. Jennifer read her essay on why she loves teaching middle-schoolers: to wit, middle-schoolers love and hate more intensely than any other creatures on the planet. In one comedy sketch, the five-foot-nothing Stephanie played the wife to a six-foot-six Walt Zipprian (an amazing writer in his own right), and it was possibly the cutest pairing I've ever seen on any stage (strange as it is to put the words "cute" and "Walt Zipprian" in the same sentence).
Blogging Sporadically since 2014
Here you will find political campaign-related entries, as well as some about my literature, Houston underground arts, peace & justice, urban cycling, soccer, alt-religion, and other topics.