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Out of the darkness – ‘The Night the Lights Went Out’

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We’ve all heard stories – usually intended to be inspirational in some way, shape or form – about people who have died and come back. People who have suffered some sort of catastrophic accident or health-related incident and briefly passed away, only to, through some combination of quality treatment and pure luck, return.

The thing is, that’s often where the story stops – with the return. But what about what happens next? And what about the other people, the friends and family who, if you’ll pardon me, lived through it?

Those questions and their answers serve as the foundation for Drew Magary’s “The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage” (Harmony, $27). It’s the story of a fateful night a few years ago when the author suffered a massive and still-unexplained brain injury, one that led to his brief (but very real) death, followed by a medically-induced coma. It’s also the story of what happened when he woke up, as well as of the people who were there to witness what happened during that stretch of time before he came back. Not to mention his ongoing efforts toward some kind of recovery.

As you might imagine, there’s a lot of darkness to be explored here. And make no mistake – the shadows run deep in some sections of this book. But here’s the thing – Magary has developed a unique voice over his years of online writing (you can currently find him doing his thing on the excellent collectively-owned website Defector, which you should 100% subscribe to), a voice that is sharp and sly and self-aware and perfectly capable of mining humor and heart from the bleakest of ores.

This story really begins on the night of the Deadspin Awards in 2018 (Magary was a writer there before the mass exodus of talent that eventually led to Defector; I’m not going to go into the whole thing here, but that is also a fascinating story if you care to check it out). Magary was serving as the host for the evening’s festivities, a master of ceremonies of sorts. The event itself went off quite well by all accounts, but tragedy awaited at the karaoke bar afterparty.

(And really, isn’t there always some sort of tragedy awaiting at the karaoke bar?)

In an incident whose particulars remain undetermined to this day, Magary fell while waiting for the bathroom. The circumstances of the fall are unclear, but the aftermath was horrible – he fell so hard onto the concrete floor that he fractured his skull in multiple places and suffered a severe brain hemorrhage. These injuries were so catastrophic that, were it not for immediate intervention by those nearby, he almost certainly would have died.

As it was, he wound up in a medically-induced coma for weeks while his family and friends stood vigil and hoped for the best. Of course, when he came to, it was only the beginning. Traumatic brain injuries are notoriously fickle and unpredictable – particularly when it comes to recovery. Magary’s struggles going forward would be difficult, and ultimately, there would be no way of knowing just how much of his former faculties he would regain.

Recovery from this sort of injury is a long road, one that is rarely traveled at a steady clip. In fits and starts, Magary began finding his way back – not to normalcy as he knew it, but a new normal. And as it became clear that some changes were permanent – physically, mentally, emotionally permanent – he was left to push through his frustrations.

Still, in the midst of uncertainty, he dug deep to find the one thing on which he knew he could count – his words.

“The Night the Lights Went Out” is a thoughtful meditation on what it means to come back from the brink. It explores the harsh realities of survival – yes, living on after such a tragic and terrifying incident is wonderful, but there’s a lot more to recovery than simply waking up. There is a lot of work to be done, and even if everything falls in just the right way, it’s almost certain that some of the “you” from before is never coming back. It’s a kind of existential terror that most of us will never comprehend.

Sounds pretty f---ing bleak, doesn’t it? And in other, less capable hands, this book would be just that – unrelentingly bleak. But since we’re talking about Drew Magary, we instead get a combination of insight and irreverence. Yes, those bleak moments are there – how could they not be? – but they’re surrounded by the charm of the mid-stage curmudgeon that he evokes so well. You might not think that a book about traumatic brain injury would be funny, but this one absolutely is. His gift for vivid coarseness serves him well, every thoroughly detailed description of trauma and traumatic events punctuated and punctured by an unwavering sense of humor.

Even as he digs into his struggles – both his own and the ones reflected upon those close to him – that sense of self-deprecation remains, allowing us a holistic glimpse into his experiences. Neither overly sunny nor unduly shadowed, “The Night the Lights Went Out” is indicative of what is perhaps Magary’s greatest trait as a writer – his honesty.

While his own experiences are the bulk of the book, Magary also takes great care to engage with the people who were there during the time when, well … the lights were out. By doing this – by talking to the people who were there for the incident and those who were by his side at the hospital – he adds dimension to the story that otherwise wouldn’t be there. To get the perspective of his doctors, with jargon-laden explanations of what happened and how much worse it might have been. To hear from his family members, people who sat unendingly beside his hospital bed. Or his friends, the people whose quick actions on that fateful night very well may have saved his life. It’s a layer of texture that beautifully elevates the story, providing the context that quite literally fills in the gaps.

Obviously, “The Night the Lights Went Out” has a happy ending – Drew Magary is still here, still churning out Funbags and Jambaroos and telling us why our teams suck. He worked hard, yes, but he also got lucky. And one thing is for damned sure – he is absolutely cognizant of just how lucky. That sense of good fortune shines through on every page, even when the story is at a nadir. It is a meditation on survival, refracted through the skewed prism of a gifted smartass.

Thanks for sharing this, Drew. We’re glad you’re still here.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 12:17

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