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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
GUTS: THE ENDLESS FOLLIES AND TINY TRIUMPHS OF A GIANT DISASTER

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, by Kristen Johnston; Gallery Books, 288 pages, $25.

A few years ago, Kristen Johnston was one of the many actors who appeared in the long-running Celebrity Autobiography, a brilliant series of readings from the memoirs of the rich, renowned and often fatuous. So you have to admire her guts in putting forth her own aptly named memoir. But it’s clear that the Amazonian actress learned from that gig, much as her first book makes clear she’s learned from her life, and Guts is a smart, searing and often savagely funny self-examination.

Best known to the world for her role as the tough, statuesque alien Sally in the TV show Third Rock from the Sun, Johnston is at least equally familiar to New York theater audiences for her work in such plays as The WomenAunt Dan and Lemon and several Shakespeare in the Park productions. But in this lively, foulmouthed recounting, her career on stage and screen cedes the spotlight to the two-time Emmy-winning actress, who tells the story of her addiction to alcohol and prescription pain pills.

But make no mistake: Guts is far more than just your average 12-step tale. Johnston is nothing if not brutally honest as she tells the story of her unhappy childhood as a six-foot-tall, supposedly learning-disabled “freak” who couldn’t fit in to her upper-middle-class Midwestern suburb – until she learned the power of her own wit and hightailed it off to New York to become an actress.

What’s refreshing here is not so much the ugly duckling story as the unflinching eye Johnson turns not only on her tormentors, but on herself. She never minces words – or judgments – and as she narrates her trials, she manages both to relay their devastating emotional impact and to put them in perspective. And though it’s easy to be suspicious of someone who calls herself funny, this tough-talking take-no-prisoners memoir does offer its share of belly laughs, even while it also provides a gut-wrenching look at addiction from the inside.

The centerpiece of the book is Johnston’s 2006-7 stay in London, where she was supposed to be appearing in John Kolvenbach’s play Love Song with Neve Campbell. But in an attempt to feed her pain-pill habit, Johnston started taking megadoses of the U.K.’s over-the-counter codeine, which is liberally laced with aspirin. The result was that an undiagnosed ulcer in Johnston’s gut ruptured, filling her abdomen with the contents of her stomach and precipitating a near-fatal medical emergency. Left alone and unable to eat, drink or smoke as she struggled for life in a foreign hospital room, Johnston was, gradually, forced to face up to what she’d made of her life.

Although her asides to the reader sometimes feel a little forced, Johnston’s writing is fresh and immediate as she narrates her rise, fall and recovery. She’s compelling without being cloying, and perhaps most miraculous of all, she’s consistently and unrepentantly herself. Even when she’s being eaten up by addiction, she has attitude, and whether she’s living the soi-disant high life in Hollywood or holed up in the hospital from hell, her inner integrity is what’s truly inspirational. 

 


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