Happy: A Memoir
by Alex Lemon
Reviewed by Jenny Dunning
Nicknamed "Happy" by his college friends and teammates, the Alex Lemon revealed in his memoir Happy is anything but -- either emotionally or physically. The book details, often graphically, Lemon's struggle with a series of brain aneurisms and risky brain surgery during his student years at Macalester College, years he was caught up in a life of heavy partying and lots of sex. The result is a heady read, pairing edge-of-your-seat medical drama with testosterone-laced college antics, all told in language often stunning in its surprising images and lyric intensity.
The powerful language is no surprise, as Lemon is the author of three books of poetry -- Mosquito (Tin House Books, 2006) and Hallelujah Blackout (Milkweed Editions, 2008), and Fancy Beasts (Milkweed Editions, 2010). Lemon's at his best when evoking his hypersensitized, confused state -- his "insides rubberband"; he's "swallowing [himself] alive"; he feels "like a woodshop is working inside" him. His world is no ordinary world but one experienced through a poet's sensibility: the spring air is "steamed milk and metal"; the night, "splintered, a handful of oil"; the ocean has a "raw-potato smell"; his mother's worry is "a tire-fire in the small room"; "the days . . . have turned into a line of burning gunpowder."
Lemon's gifts go beyond imagery; he selectively and purposefully remakes syntax. The middle-of-the-night radiologist speaks without spaces between his words. Just before his surgery, with its serious risk of neurological damage or death, he launches into a long paragraph of phrases strung together without punctuation -- a paragraph that conveys the mish-mash of feelings he's having, from fear to regret: "the good-bye clangs inside me . . . I don't get a chance to say I am wonderful under these streetlights just plain good screaming into antiseptic air . . . "
Sometimes Lemon's penchant for lyricism gets to be too much; there are places where the language tries too hard or hits a flat note. A friend "Thrillers off to the dessert bar"; the author claims he is "wishboned apart"; his mother "napkins" her mouth; the earth is "mealwormed"; brightness "porcupines" his face. Lemon's habit of using nouns as verbs becomes an annoying tic, as does the parallel verb construction he uses repeatedly (e.g., "the woods cloister and rasp").
Fortunately, the reader hardly has time to notice these writerly excesses, given the quick, compelling pace of the narrative. When will Lemon take his symptoms seriously and see a doctor? When will he slow down on the partying, which can't be good for him? Will he have the surgery? Who will do it? Will Hurricane Floyd scuttle it? And most importantly, will he be okay? It's a page-turner, an unusual attribute for a book of such innovative prose.
Readers need a strong stomach, however. Lemon's decision to render the narrative almost exclusively in present-tense scenes offers little of the relief that distance provides nor the opportunity for much reflection. Lemon presents his reckless partying unapologetically -- he gulps handfuls of Vicodin and amphetamines, chews tobacco, takes psilocybin mushrooms, and drinks excessive amounts of beer and gin, often first thing in the morning. He steals for the sake of stealing. He and his friends revel in skipping class. There are few references to study; one wonders how Lemon could have made it through a prestigious private college, let alone be hired as a visiting English professor a few years later. And post-college-aged readers may find the jock scenes, with their overabundant references to sex and masturbation, excessive.
For that reason, it tends to be the characters other than the narrator who make this memoir worth reading -- especially Lemon's mother, the eccentric artist he calls "Ma," who moves to Minnesota to nurse him back to health after his surgery. Yet despite Lemon's celebration of her unconventionality, he hardly demonstrates an enlightened view of his female peers. The women he gets involved with look "like a young Lauren Hutton" -- slim, tanned, athletic. His prose, in these sections, fails to evoke an attraction that's more than skin deep.
Overall, Happy does contain real substance and honesty. Lemon's problems with intimacy stem from childhood abuse, and he lets it all hang out. His impulses toward self-harm, his sudden bursts of anger, his series of poor decisions are all on the page. Toward the end of the memoir, he comes clean with himself -- a feat, considering the present tense, mimetic mode of the work. In the end, it's hard not to like "Happy" Lemon and root for him.