Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story by Julia Wertz rings it at just over 300 pages and hardcover, so there is no mistaking that this graphic memoir is going to be as weighty as it feels. Wertz has earned her publishing chops with five other collections and as a contributor to the The New York Times and The New Yorker, but both seasoned and entry-level readers of her work will feel welcomed here.
This is indeed an ‘average’ story of Wertz’s alcohol abuse and her cycling in and out of management and abstinence. It’s the averageness that makes the reading so appealing – I see myself in these pages; I see people I know in these pages. It’s not so much dark as insightful and even humorously validating that we are so similar in our secretive behaviors, as when Wertz recounts her own backstory of blackouts and coping mechanisms, like rotating between three nearby liquor stores “to avoid detection of my drinking habit” by the sales clerks. This is hilariously bookended at the close of the story as she is moving away from New York and tells one of the bodega cashiers, “I’ve been shopping here for ten years! I’m going to miss you!” and gets, “Huh? That’ll be $1.49.” in response. Wertz shares countless personal experiences of the stories/promises/lies she told herself to get through some of her worst times, including going into rehab, and afterward getting into a relationship where she is gaslit and cheated on.
In recovery stories, there seems to be either a hero to become endeared to or someone whose behavior is so reprehensible they are loathsome and nearly impossible to fully trust. Wertz is neither extreme. She is indeed average in how she shows herself at her worst but also in how she confronts her own flaws, accepts her worstness, and takes two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward. I don’t so much cheer her, but I am intrigued to stay with her every step of the way. And there are a lot of steps!
One of Wertz’s coping mechanisms was walking, and she takes readers on tours over and over through New York City streets, keenly detailing neighborhood storefronts as well as her own apartment as it fills with treasures she collects from her urban exploring. Along with the intricately drawn scenes are just as keenly crafted and layered dialogues: narration to the reader, her own self-talk, and her interactions with others. At one point, her friend comments, “That reminds me, I read a review of your book that just came out. I can’t believe it described you as ‘deadpan.” To which Julia replies, “You don’t think I’m deadpan? I like to think I’m deadpan.” While there may be some deadpan in the singular dialogues, when there are exchanges between characters, the tone is anything but. It is much more quick-witted smarminess bordering on the kind of sarcasm that can only be shared between friends or like-minded humorists who can be just as rapid to respond in kind. These punchy exchanges give the reader insight into the kind of perspective from which a comic must view the world – and clearly cull some good material.
There are discomforting moments throughout this narrative, as there must be when dealing with someone’s honest look at their downsides and struggles. Even when Julia beats herself up over them, the reader accepts this as just what needs to happen for her to be able to make the next desired change in her life. Already knowing how this story ends does not deter me from becoming fully engrossed in the reading. Wertz is a secret teller, and in revealing her own life to readers so fully, we can most certainly see our own or those of others we know. It allows us to feel not so alone, perhaps even accept how average each of us truly is, in the most beautifully desirable way possible.
Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story by Julia Wertz. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, May 2023.
Reviewer bio: Denise Hill is Editor of NewPages.com and reviews books she chooses based on her own personal interests.