Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke (Chronicle Prism, 176 pp, $22.95, January 2020)
David Talbot—journalist, popular historian, longtime San Francisco resident, and author of Season of the Witch—has written a surprisingly vulnerable, intimate, often funny and engaging memoir which chronicles the November 2017 stroke that has left him physically devastated yet feeling, at times, oddly peaceful and carefree. As he writes at the end of the book with a nod to the cover art by William Blake, the ordeal left him “ravaged and reborn, all at once.”
For most of his life, Talbot was an S.F. insider and Type-A striver, who founded the online news and culture magazine Salon.com in 1995 and served as editor-in-chief for ten years despite intense financial pressures. (A quick check of the Salon site now is uninspiring, sadly.) His books have covered dangerous political terrain with elegant depth: Robert Kennedy obsesses about the truth behind his brother’s assassination in Brothers (2007); The Devil’s Chessboard (2015) took on the frightening abuses of power of the C.I.A. during the Cold War. His most popular book, Season of the Witch (2012), grappled with the dark, violent side of San Francisco in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, as well as the sexy, progressive cultural movements that flourished here.
Talbot has a gift for capturing the zeitgeist. And so, in this memoir, he somehow pulls his experience outside of himself. While keeping his feet on the earth, as in the cover art, he reaches for meaning. The first part of the book is full of medical details: what happened on the day of the stroke; how he eventually got to the E.R. at a local hospital, St. Luke’s (walking in, a mistake); how he missed the critical three-hour window to recover quickly; how he was transferred to Davies Medical Center’s stroke ward and began a long process of rehabilitation. What could be indulgent and deeply depressing, a plodding chronicle of loss, becomes something else.
He has had two career identities, and both nearly killed him. He writes amusingly and harrowingly of an apparent heart attack at Salon in 1998, which turned out to be a panic attack that struck, perhaps not coincidentally, when the co-founder of Adobe, John Warnock, was visiting the building for an important meeting and had reached the lobby. Anxious about his main investor seeing him being taken out of the office on a stretcher, he insisted on staggering down the back stairs before being bundled into an ambulance. The money came through; the site was saved, and Talbot, whose mother died of a stroke at sixty, was told he should take it easy. But of course, he didn’t.
And then there was Hollywood. The son of actor Lyle Talbot, he writes about attending a series of ultimately frustrating meetings in a fruitless quest to get his book on Allen Dulles and the CIA turned into a TV drama. There was a long meeting shortly before his stroke where he felt his head was going to explode from the pressure of trying to “sell” his story. He writes honestly of wanting to be financially saved by Hollywood. It’s a common fantasy, and Hollywood seems to thrive on bringing people close and dashing the cup from their lips. “Of course, Hollywood mythology and reality are two different things,” Talbot concludes darkly. “The business behind the screen can be the most sleazy and brutal that American has to offer. Words don’t mean anything—the more praise I would hear about my books, the more I knew they didn’t have a chance.”
Word, as they say. But Talbot’s stroke effectively ended his Hollywood aspirations. He had to learn to live again, in a more introspective fashion, aided by his wife and two grown sons, and initially helped by a GoFundMe page started by a family friend. With a wonky left eye, dark glasses, a cane, and a staggering gait, Talbot doesn’t feel like his old self and understands he will never regain that self. But there is something more, and this is what I loved most about the book. Talbot’s brave self-awareness about his twilight existence in the sterile, noisy S.F. of today helped me take stock of my own life:
I now live in a ghost world, and not everyone who was once close to me wants to venture into this shadowy place to hang out with me. Some people are clearly spooked. I remind them of their own frailty and mortality. I get it; it’s understandable. But it confirms my spectral status to me.
…The truth is, I want to keep living at half-speed, in my secure, bubble world, with those to whom I can feel effortlessly close. No, I don’t just want to—I need to.
But there’s joy here. More sensitive to musical beats, Talbot breaks out into impromptu dances while clothes-shopping with his wife and sister (he shares a playlist at the end of the book, charmingly). A year after the stroke he and wife Camille take off to Carmel to escape the terribly polluted air during the wildfires with their dog, Brando. Talbot writes amusingly of this surreal episode, where they, along with a bunch of other exhausted refugees from the city, stay in Doris Day’s pet-friendly inn and watch the dogs caper on the beach. A woman with a blind dog chats with them. “The woman told Camille that her small dog was blind but she liked to bring him to dog-friendly beaches so he could smell and hear his fellow canines as they barked and splashed in the surf. She said it made him happy. I could relate—I’m now nearly half blind too, and crazy canine carnivals like the one spinning out of control on the beach made me laugh out loud like a kid.”
When they return to the city “the air still smelled like a dying campfire,” but soon there is rain. And so it goes in this book and in life, where the good is juxtaposed with the bad, and the painful with the happy. Talbot’s sons are now doing well (his son Joe directed a movie and you can feel his pride in that); ultimately, he has decided to stay in San Francisco, which takes a special kind of courage and commitment. For a city that gives a lot, it also takes a lot, and you can feel a conversation going on throughout the book between Talbot and the place he once felt so comfortable. Out walking, he now feels like roadkill, he admits. Coming home from the hospital, he is alienated: “The city was shrill and mechanical; a flock of construction cranes hovered monstrously in the skyline. I couldn’t make sense of all the loud disorder. There was no warm embrace from me from the city that still had my heart.”
But then he is asked to speak at a Jane Kim rally as she runs for mayor in 2018. Plucking up his courage, he addresses a crowd of young people from a seated position in a rowdy space South of Market, begging their patience because talking is still a work in progress. The young techies quieten down, and “San Francisco inspired a passionate eloquence in me.” There is still something to fight for here, in his view. And I can attest that on Facebook (where the early draft of this book started, ironically), Talbot is a charming, open presence, willing to share his historical knowledge.
As I read Between Heaven and Hell, I reflected to my astonishment that I am only fifteen years younger than Talbot, born the year his family moved to San Francisco. I see him now as something of a peer, though that seems presumptuous. But we are all searching for meaning and purpose in this life, going through many of the same things in our different circumstances. The memoir made me feel more connected and, perhaps, more hopeful. I hope Between Heaven and Hell won’t be Talbot’s last book, but if so, it is a beautiful and generous swan song.