Time on Fire opens with the 1985 diagnosis of Handler’s leukemia. The actor is 24 years old and working as a Broadway understudy; he chooses Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for his rounds of chemotherapy. The chapters that follownumbered 1 through 12 by a clock striking the hoursprovide a perverse antidote to maudlin magazine accounts of disease battlers. Handler charts his “opportunistic optimism” and his crying jags (“An activity that had always had powerful emotional connotations took on the appearance and impact of an involuntary bodily function”). He jokes about money-grubbing feel-good gurus; contemplates the double meaning of the word “patient”; finds inspiration in the words of a perky California counselor named Barbi; and fantasizes about his psychic healer. He writes disdainfully of mismanagement at Sloan-Kettering, but lovingly of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he goes for a bone marrow transplant. Handler searches his soul with an unsentimental honesty, and expresses himself in snappy, intelligent sentences. Even in the direst moments, it’s assured that he’ll come out alive. But when he’s finished, there’s a sense that he’s only told two-thirds of the story.
Were Handler still severely ill, finding fault with him would be taboo. Even now that he has been in remission for several years, he’s practically irreproachable, considering the incredible torment he went through. Yet it’s impossible to forget that Handler wrote Time on Fire with the benefit of hindsight. As he surveyed his diaries for choice anecdotes, he must have realized how his ordeal drained his family and friends. Healthy once more, he might have felt a sense of renewed responsibility to those who indulged him during his illness.
Instead, the author never suspectses that his audience wants to hear about anyone other than Evan Handler. He proudly tells how his then-girlfriend, Jackie Reingold, stayed by his side throughout the years of his leukemia, but rarely shares any of her insights (except to recall his hurt feelings upon discovering her typewritten play, whose lead character’s boyfriend has died of cancer). He does recount how she gamely tries to help him maintain a sex life in hospital bathrooms, despite a cold sink and teetering IV pole. But he’s ungenerous toward her when he enjoys reprieves from constant treatment; in fact, he pities her for not living life to the fullest. “If Jackie was unable to seize hold of life, right now; if Jackie had to recover from the trauma of all that we’d just been through, I wished her well,” he writes without irony. “…If I waited for her, my time might pass me by.” Reingold must be a remarkable person, but here she’s only a cardboard cutout.
The same is true of Handler’s family, the buffer for his anger. Early in his treatment, Handler decides to let go of his inhibitions, and everyone else’s; he gathers his parents, brother, and sister to candidly discuss long-kept secrets, which are spelled out for the reader in celebrity tell-all fashion. His mother and father accept this incident, but his Tourette’s syndrome-suffering brother and suburbanite sister pretty much vanish from Time on Fire afterward. The inevitable conclusion is that Handler’s openness alienated them. But Handler would rather not dwell on his mistakes.
A strong ego helps combat illness, and Time on Fire might be a lesson to the weak-willed. Handler can relax his narcissistic urges now, though. Time on Fire’s heartfelt coda, an overdue nod to those he loves, wins back readers who have soured on his tone. But those who vicariously attend his recovery won’t want to spend any more time with him.CP