Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Happy: A Memoir, by Alex Lemon

Happy: A Memoir (Scribner’s: 2010) is a first-person narrative about an 18-year old college student—intelligent, artistic, a baseball player—who in 1997 begins to suffer bleeding in his brain stem. The memoir details how he responds to two episodes of this problem, undergoes risky and devastating surgery, and gradually recovers. Bleeding in the brain is not the only challenge Alex Lemon faces (his nickname is “Happy”). His parents have been divorced since he was a 2-year old. His mother is a strong willed individualist. As a child he was repeatedly molested by an older cousin. He indulges heavily in alcohol and drugs, and as he begins to suffer the effects of bleeding in his brain, he drinks and drugs even more heavily. It is difficult to separate these various sources of trauma and to measure how they impact him. Perhaps this is the point—Alex himself cannot manage this.

As a college student, despite his interests in art and literature, Alex is a stereotypical jock and frat boy—perhaps at the extreme of these stereotypes. He devotes much of the narrative to descriptions of interactions with fraternity brothers and his excessive behavior at parties and on other occasions. A primary way he and his brothers interact is to pretend to insult and abuse one another—this is typical college-level behavior, and most of the time it’s possible to distinguish the playful nature of the talk from the occasional episodes where the insults are serious. Nonetheless, this aspect of the book became tedious. I did not like this dimension of Alex Lemon, which tends to dominate the story. Lemon himself seemed to brim with self-loathing during this part of his life.

Self-pity and willful denial of the problem besetting him are also issues—he suffers the symptoms of bleeding in the brain long before he actually sees a doctor. The condition at first affects his play as a catcher for the Macalester College baseball team, ultimately ending his career as an athlete. Soon it affects his emotions and his social interactions with friends, his roommate, and his girlfriends. How he deals with the brain problem, his decision to have surgery, the days in which he prepares for the event that he believes will end his life, and the recovery afterwards, are the best parts of this book. Effective also are Alex’s descriptions of his mother—a wild and careful counter-cultural type—an artist--who loves her son deeply but is not fully aware, at least at first, of how disturbed and unhappy he is. She’s ceaselessly supportive, even when he is indifferent or cruel to her; at the same time she can be hard on him. As important as she is to Alex, he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining her character, but she’s vividly portrayed.

A large chunk of the narrative detailing the latter stages of Alex’s recovery from surgery, his pursuit of a graduate degree in creative writing, and his decision to marry are not in the memoir, which seems to end when it becomes clear that he is going to make a near-full recovery. Perhaps this part of the story will come in a later volume. (We do have two chapters set in 2004, three years after the surgery). In an epilogue, some eleven years after the first problems began, we learn that Lemon continues to suffer some symptoms from the brain surgery.

Lemon has published three volumes of poetry, one with Tin House Books and two with Milkweed Press. He is a lecturer in the English Department at Texas Christian University.

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