Spalding Gray, America's captivating teller of angst-filled stories, ended his life in 2004 at the age of 62, after two gruesome years of suicidal depression resulting from a car-totalling crash in Ireland which left him with a broken hip and a severe head injury. Life Interrupted consists of Gray's final monologue in which he describes - with humor and pathos - the accident and its aftermath in Irish hospitals, plus a short story he wrote to commemorate his tenth wedding anniversary, and a short love letter he penned to the city of New York. More than half the volume is a compilation of tributes to Gray delivered at memorial services by his family, and friends from show business like Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson and Eric Stoltz that express admiration for his genius and examples of his warmth and generosity.
His close friend, writer Francine Prose, has written a moving foreword that outlines the helplessness felt by those close to Gray as he became more and more depressed after the accident, despite many medical measures taken to restore him to health: hospitalizations, psychotropic drugs, surgeries for his injuries, electroshock therapy, trips across the country consulting doctors, including neurologist Dr. Oliver Sachs of Awakenings fame. Treatments would work for a while and then become ineffective. There were more than a few suicide attempts before the final successful one.
While not a biography, readers will learn a lot about Gray's life: that he left two brothers, Rockwell and Channing, called Rocky and Chan, that his lifelong nickname was Spud, that his Christian Scientist mother committed suicide at age 52, that he was a distant cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His stepdaughter Marissa, who lived with Gray since she was three, writes an account of the impact Gray's illness had on their family life, and does it so brilliantly one is sure she was patiently taught how to write by Spalding. His older brother provides fascinating details of their Rhode Island childhood and the actor's early interest in theater. Nearly everyone mentions his athleticism: skiing, bodysurfing, swimming, tennis, all-day hiking, ten-mile bike rides, sailing. Tellingly, he never wanted to live far from water.
Life Interrupted fills in a piece of the puzzle of Gray's death, a mystery that persisted not only for the months between his suicide and the discovery of his body in the East River near Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but to the present. The man he presented in his performances was eminently sane, the more so for the insights he shared about his hang-ups.
The book reveals that there were several breakdowns before the accident - periods of obsessive rituals, withdrawal and paranoia of which the public was unaware. Even knowing the facts, it seems impossible for him to have been so successful, so brilliant, so comedically distanced from his own neurosis, and to have been in that much real trouble. As an artist he was in perfect control, creating dazzling narrative arcs of his crises, getting the audience to laugh with him at his hypochondria and doomsday preoccupations. (In Morning, Noon and Night, they seemed confirmed when his morning paper reported the presence near earth of "unpredictable rogue asteroids" - only Spalding Gray could make terror funny in three words.)
His presence onstage was mezmerizing: a gray-haired man in a flannel shirt behind a desk, using body language for all it was worth - wildly gesticulating or sitting quietly - arranging his vocal inflections as a musical composition - hypnotic, cadenced, bursting into impersonations, sound effects, fugues and counterpoints, resolution and coda.