Review by Jules Barrueco
When Amber Tozer was 13, she and her best friend crawled out a window, met two boys at the tennis courts, and passed around a bottle of bourbon until Tozer felt like a superhero. She experienced an “incredible transformation” both physically and emotionally, hurdling the net and climbing the fence with her newfound powers, and doing so with confidence. “The nerves I had just an hour before were briefly drowned out by the voice of Jim Beam. A voice that I felt like I had been waiting for all my life,” recalls Tozer in her new memoir Sober Stick Figure (Running Press, 2016). Then she blacked out, passed out, and threw up “all the happy feelings” that she “thought would last forever.” It took almost 20 years for her to fully sober up.
In Sober Stick Figure, stand-up comic and comedy writer Amber Tozer invites her readers to view her story of alcoholism and recovery through the lens of a comedian. A funny exploration of a heavy topic, her book brings levity to a discussion that seldom generates laughs. Alongside Tozer—hundreds of stick-figure drawings of Tozer, by Tozer—you can examine your own habits and experiences in an unintimidating way, while having so much fun that you forget you’re swimming in dark waters. And that, I believe, just might be the thing that allows her to reach and help many.
Tozer, the daughter of a bar owner, grew up around alcoholics both at and away from home. She finished high school largely unscathed with top grades and an athletic scholarship, but soon she was driving drunk to class at college. Her need to connect drove her to be more social, and she couldn’t socialize without being drunk. She loved “the manufactured feeling” alcohol gave her, the “bad ideas” that she “thought were 100 percent great,” and “the confidence to take action on them.” Eventually she moved to New York City where, during a nine-year bender, she awoke beneath her desk at work just in time to start another day, and emerged from blackouts mid-conversation unsure where she was. She hopped from one day job to the next, and by night she became a standup comic, the rare career in which drinking at work is not frowned upon. Eventually, after leaving behind her city, her unsatisfying office jobs, and her “super fucked-up” relationship, she asked for help. And then she changed her life.
Tozer’s book is unique, and funny, and that allows her to get away with some cardinal writing sins. At times, for example, it felt more like a collection of anecdotes that all involved alcohol, and less like a memoir with emotional depth and a tension-building story arch. The intensity felt steady throughout, and even her revelation that she should quit drinking was anticlimactic, glossed over without a lot of detail or emotional reveal. In writers’ parlance, she tells a lot and shows little, and at times the book reads like Tozer typed a long email to a friend chronicling the details of her life between her first drink and her last. Her sentences are informal and simple, an efficient no-frills vehicle to take you from point A to point B.
And yet, her voice is authentic and her message is refreshingly honest. She doesn’t pretend that sobriety is a happy ending, and addresses the ugly realities of addiction she faced long after she had her last drink. She reveals two close calls with relapse and exudes insecurity about her future. She jokes, “I hope by the time you’re reading this I haven’t relapsed and am like, ‘I decided to start drinking again and I’m also doing heroin. Thanks for buying my book about getting sober and funding my new drug problem!’” Beneath her funny words lurks an apparent fear of what lies ahead, which provides a valuable glimpse into the life a recovered alcoholic. She helps you understand “how tricky alcoholism is,” how she “could fuck up at any moment,” and how “It’s those little decisions in those intense moments that make a huge difference.” She does all this while staying true to her own voice, the voice that helped her earn success and fans and a pretty hefty Twitter following.
The real stars of the book, however, are its namesake stick figures. It is within Tozer’s illustrations that her comedic gift shines brightest, and I’d welcome the opportunity to read anything—a cookbook, a math book, a phonebook—if Tozer first went at it with a pack of colored pencils. Don’t skim past the little guys; they’re well worth slowing down for.
“Addiction is a beast that wraps itself around your mind and tricks you into thinking that without it you won’t survive,” she says near the end. By this point in the book, her readers will have nearly completed an unfiltered journey with a real, flawed, struggling human. Hopefully they will feel inspired, full of hope that if she can slay her beast, then maybe they can, too.
Jules Barrueco is an attorney and a writer in New York City. When she’s not hard at work at her day job, she takes night classes at NYU, scours Upper East Side book stores, and writes about everything that happens in between. Her essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan.com and the New York Observer, among other places. Jules lives in Carnegie Hill with her husband and their rescue dog, Tuck Noodle. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.julesbarrueco.com.