four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
By: 
Alex Lemon
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-HappyAlex Lemon teaches poetry at Texas Christian University. He has published two books of poems, and a third collection, Fancy Beasts, is forthcoming.

The Topic: On the campus of Macalester College, the young Alex Lemon was universally known as "Happy." As the college baseball team’s up-and-coming star catcher, an epic partier, and the big man on campus, the name seemed to fit. But despite his sunny exterior, Lemon began to experience episodes of disorientation and hallucinations; eventually he suffered a stroke during his freshman year. When his mother and girlfriend finally persuaded him to get checked out, he discovered that he has a lesion near his brain stem that was certain to cause more problems but could only be removed at great risk. Happy is the story of how Alex coped—and failed to cope—with this harrowing reality.
Scribner. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 978-1416550235.

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"For all the macho posturing and bedding of babes, Lemon’s memoir is a love story between him and his ‘Ma.’ The book is dedicated to her. Funny how when something isn’t sugarcoated, the payoff is that much sweeter." Karen Schechner

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Lemon’s description of his erratic behavior in the face of his fear—leading up to the surgery and during his recovery—is gripping, visceral and moving. Lemon’s tales of debauchery and sheer panic make for as compelling a story as others by young men who party too much and put themselves in peril, such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (however disingenuous) and Brad Land’s Goat." Edward Nawotka

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Lemon skillfully captures the harrowing, mundane and emotionally messy qualities of his slow recovery. … Happy is graphically raw and in-your-face; Lemon’s dexterity with words forces the reader into gritty latitudes no one would visit voluntarily, and the level of detail will cause some readers to squirm. But Happy is an honest voyage into Lemon’s keen mind, remarkable spirit and loving heart, and it shouldn’t be missed." Julie Foster

Salon.com 4 of 5 Stars
"Some of the most remarkable and moving passages in Happy depict how young men whose vocabulary for affection is limited to arm punches and mock insults find a way to convey their love for each other. What’s moving is that they try; what’s remarkable is how well they succeed. … The real hero of Happy, however, is Lemon’s mom … this is the story of a boy and his mother, but one whose tenderness sneaks up on you while you’re distracted by all the blood and booze and hollering." Laura Miller

Portland Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… Lemon spiraled into a cycle of drinking, drugs, cheating on a series of what sound like lovely girlfriends, even self-mutilation, a painful process he describes in his new memoir Happy. … These sections get tiresome, if you’re no longer young and/or you’ve read such accounts before. … One turns from the debauchery and macho competitiveness to the medical tests and hospital stays with relief. Objective reality (or Lemon’s keen eye) repeatedly kicks in with wonderful metaphors and analogies. … Happy is a short, fast, punchy read." David Loftus

Critical Summary

Many of Happy’s enthusiastic reviewers seemed to feel the need to begin with an apology. Sure, there are lots of books out there about young people confronting fatal diseases and just as many no-holds-barred chronicles of men leaving adolescence behind (though not without letting us in on the best parts first). But as Laura Miller of Salon.com observed, "this one is something special." Perhaps it’s the fact that Lemon’s later career would prove he had a poet inside him the whole time: some of the book’s well-chosen details certainly bear that out. But Miller found Happy persuasive not necessarily because of its prose but because of its honesty about Miller’s relationships with those he loved and those he hurt—particularly his mother, universally cited as the book’s most interesting character and reason enough to read it.