- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
You don’t need to have spent time in a hospital to enjoy and fully comprehend two memoirs by actor, playwright Evan Handler of “Calfornication” and “Sex and the City” fame but it helps. I was recently hospitalized — the second time this year — and when I read “Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors” (Argo-Navis, $25.99 paperback, $8.99 eBook) and “It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive” (Argo-Navis, $25.99 paperback, $8.99 eBook) — both available on amazon.com and other sites — I experienced more than a few instances of instant recognition.
Based on Handler’s hit off-Broadway play, “Time on Fire” is an eloquent account of illness and survival, love and hope — shot through with anger, humor, and piercing eloquence.
Handler — the guy with the full head of curly hair, not the shiny pated actor of today — was twenty-four and already an accomplished actor when he was diagnosed with acute leukemia and told that his chances for survival were slim. Resigning his role in Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues”, Handler checked into New York Memorial’s Cancer Center — the famous Sloan-Kettering on First Avenue — and began a bizarre, sometimes uproarious five-year journey in and out of hospitals — “a raucous rump through Hell” — only to face an equally arduous return to the life he left behind.
“Time on Fire” is the story of Handler’s passage into a twilight world: the world of hospitals and nurses and doctors pledged not to tell you anything; a place of lonely, haunting despair lit by moments of exultation and hilarity; a world where the truly horrible and the hysterically funny not only coexist but seem to become the same thing. It often appeared to me like a 3 a.m. visit by a lab tech seeking my blood and always asking me my name and date of birth. If you’ve ever asked a doctor or other medical professional what the prognosis is and the result is nothingness or a pat answer, you’ll appreciate Handler’s experiences.
From the comic accounts of his trip to a Madison Avenue sperm bank (“Nothing but the best address for my progeny”) and his experimentation with psychic healing, including fire walking in California , to the portrayal of the unraveling effects of his illness on his family and girlfriend Patricia, Handler records with eloquent prose the full emotional range of his experience. The result is a bracing, achingly poignant account of his determination to steal time and reclaim life. “Time on Fire” is a testament to the bravery and the endurance of the human spirit. It’s also a contrast between the often brutal medical treatment in New York City with the courtly, informative and soothing treatment Handler experienced undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sometimes stereotypes have more than a ring of truth. Just saying “bone marrow transplant” after reading Handler’s account of what’s really involved in this procedure sends shivers up my spine.
* * *
Fast forward ten years from the events of “Time on Fire”: Handler picks up with his life after surviving leukemia in the second of two often hilarious memoirs, “It’s Only Temporary.” Handler is not only a survivor after his bout with leukemia, his career is thriving and he meets an Italian researcher named Elisa Atti who becomes the love of his life — and his wife. If it all sounds like a Hallmark or Lifetime move, hold your horses, Nellie! We’re talking native New Yorker Evan Handler here, a guy enfused with the kind of mordant wit that makes me want to pass to him the mantle of Oscar Levant or Dorothy Parker.
Like “Time on Fire,” “It’s Only Temporary” is a seamless collection of funny, offbeat, and poignant autobiographical essays. Handler moves beyond the supposedly “incurable” illness he triumphed over in his mid-twenties — only to tumble through his thirties and forties in search of ever elusive love and happiness.
From attempts to restart his acting career to hapless efforts to run faster around New York’s Central Park reservoir, from bizarre Internet dates to twenty-seven breakups (involving only ten women), Handler careens through his against-all-odds existence. Always searching for meaning in his unlikely survival, he shares stories of sadistic junior high school gym teachers, bullying wannabe Hollywood moguls, returned engagement rings, and Europeans’ fascination with American bathroom habits.
About the author
Evan Handler, born in 1961, is an actor, author, screenwriter, and journalist. His work has been recognized internationally in four separate arenas. Add his mantles of survivor of a supposedly “incurable” illness (acute myeloid leukemia), health-care educator, activist, reformer, and motivational/inspirational public speaker, and Handler is revealed not only as a man who’s used his time well, but as a man who has helped to shape the time in which he’s lived.Handler first earned acclaim by playing leading roles in seven Broadway productions before his thirtieth birthday, including “Six Degrees of Separation”; “I Hate Hamlet”; “Brighton Beach Memoirs”; “Broadway Bound”; and “Master Harold…and the boys”. He has also appeared in the feature films TAPS, RANSOM, the television movie “The Three Stooges”, and starred in the series CALIFORNICATION, SEX AND THE CITY, IT’S LIKE, YOU KNOW and STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. Handler has also made memorable guest appearances on LOST, THE WEST WING, SIX FEET UNDER, and FRIENDS.
His website: http://evanhandler.com