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Happy: A Memoir

Happy: A Memoir

3.9 11
by Alex Lemon

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His freshman year of college, Alex Lemon was supposed to be the star catcher on the Macalester College baseball team. He was the boy getting every girl, the hard-partying kid everyone called Happy. In the spring of 1997, he had his first stroke. For two years Lemon coped with his deteriorating health by sinking deeper into alcohol and drug abuse. His charming and


His freshman year of college, Alex Lemon was supposed to be the star catcher on the Macalester College baseball team. He was the boy getting every girl, the hard-partying kid everyone called Happy. In the spring of 1997, he had his first stroke. For two years Lemon coped with his deteriorating health by sinking deeper into alcohol and drug abuse. His charming and carefree exterior masked his self-destructive and sometimes cruel behavior as he endured two more brain bleeds and a crippling depression. After undergoing brain surgery, he is nursed back to health by his free-spirited artist mother, who once again teaches him to stand on his own.

Alive with unexpected humor and sensuality, Happy is a hypnotic self-portrait of a young man confronting the wreckage of his own body; it is also the deeply moving story of a mother’s redemptive and healing powers. Alex Lemon’s Technicolor sentences pop and sing as he writes about survival—of the body and of the human spirit.

Editorial Reviews

Megan Buskey
…[Lemon's] descriptions of his physical hell can be precise and gut-wrenching…This book may lack finesse, but it is passionately felt and defiantly honest.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this honest memoir, Lemon, the author of two collections of poetry (Mosquito; Hallelujah Blackout), was a carefree, hard partying, baseball-playing college student at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1997 when he suffered a stroke and later two brain bleeds. Readers are swept along on his rough ride during the next two years, through his nasty travails of frenetic drug and alcohol use, terribly misguided attempts to cope with his deteriorating and frightening condition. Often he is mean and uncaring to those around him; at other times he is confused and scared. He drops into a dark depression, a cruel fate for a young man, who was known on campus by the nickname of Happy. Ultimately, he undergoes brain surgery. Lemon offers a raw and honest narration of his college life, his relationships with girlfriends and family members, especially his loving and quirky mother. He dissects his repressed inner demons and recounts his continual struggle to regain his emotional and physical health following his operation. The result is a voltaic narrative that is alternately horrifying and touching. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Poet Lemon (Mosquito; Hallelujah Blackout) packs the poignant wallop of a sprawling Dickensian novel with his taut, speedy memoir. As a freshman at Macalester College in Northfield, MN, in 1997, he begins experiencing nystagmus (jumping vision) and poor balance—symptoms that lead to the diagnosis of an aneurysm. Lucky for Lemon, the bleeding stops, but he must take care not to agitate the lesion in the delicate pons area of his brain. Translation: no partying, no sex, which he does in excess to deny a condition that hinders his baseball career and rouses unresolved feelings about his sexual abuse by a cousin. Readers will bite down nails and knuckles waiting for another inevitable health emergency. It comes, along with the beyond-risky decision to have the lesion removed. VERDICT This story of self-acceptance and the power of love maternal enraptures with its singular language. Lemon turns out strange and beautiful metaphors, and his dialog perfectly conjures the hip-hop-inflected speech of white suburban kids on their liberal arts idyll. For anyone who loves a great story, period. [Previewed in Prepub Alert & Editors' Fall Picks, LJ 9/1/09.]—Heather McCormack, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
An American poet recalls the medical maladies that befell him in college and beyond. While a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in the late 1990s, Lemon (Hallelujah Blackout, 2008, etc.) began experiencing episodes of blurry vision, mouth bleeds, dizziness, fainting spells and memory loss. He was slated to be the catcher on Macalester's baseball team, but his symptoms combined to transform him into a tortured zombie. Nicknamed "Happy" by his college buddies, the author became anything but. An MRI test showed that he had suffered a brain aneurysm from a lesion precariously situated on his brain stem. Though doctors insisted he would eventually recover from the stroke, he continued to experience unexplained anger and embarrassing erectile dysfunction, and he eventually attempted suicide. Recalling his childhood sexual abuse exacerbated matters. Another hemorrhage forced Lemon to endure a risky brain operation to excise the lesion. The pain, confusion, panic and frustration of living a young life saddled with a possibly lethal medical crisis thrusted him into a depressive state pacified only with copious amounts of alcohol, drugs and denial. It was a long road back to some semblance of normalcy, but the author finally emerged healthier and relatively happy-thanks, in part, to his valiant single mother ("Ma"), a hilariously memorable artist who helped rehabilitate her son with unflagging love and much-needed stability. Lemon's writing is saturated with beautifully descriptive passages, and the narrative flows with an unrushed, conversational cadence. His prose shimmers in places readers will least expect: the running track at the break of dawn, the view from the floor of hisdorm room after he collapses ("The world whirls when I crack open. Bookshelf, poster board, the windows wink their eyes . . . Every light pulses yelloworange and brilliant, and the TV is a blue splash"), a doctor's clinical, measured movements (45), and breathlessly divulging the crushing diagnosis to his family ("the truth drops through me like a rain of nails"). Empathetic, vividly rendered and impossible to put down. Author events in Dallas and Minneapolis. Agent: Amy Williams/McCormick & Williams
From the Publisher
“One of our time’s most compelling memoirs…..An electrifying portrait of a body in crisis.” –Esquire

"Alex Lemon takes his reader inside the terror and strangeness of illness — and gives us, along the way, a loving portrait of a devoted, wonderfully nutty mother. Lemon is a brave, headlong writer, and he captures the life of the body with vivid and memorable intensity." — Mark Doty, author of Dog Years and Fire to Fire

“This one is something special….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. The two of them can talk about nearly anything, but don't always have to. What Lemon and his mom have is that rarest of things in a trauma memoir, a parent-child relationship that is more than merely "functional." It's funkily, goofily, supremely life-affirming. Make that lifesaving.”—Laura Miller, Salon.com

"The pyrotechnic prose of Alex Lemon's memoir creates an electrifying portrait of a body in crisis, and the way the soul is inexorably, reluctantly, dragged along.... If ever a book was written in blood, it is this one." — Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

“Dazzling….. An unnervingly intimate, relentlessly poetic recounting of debauchery, trauma and healing, Alex Lemon’s memoir is cut from the same cloth as David Carr’s The Night of the Gun or James Frey’s discredited A Million Little Pieces. But whereas those autobiographies reveled in the seamy details accompanying the wild life, Happy is far more concerned with the party’s aftermath…..There are few modern works that so elegantly capture a mind and, by extension, a life on the verge of disintegration.” –Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"Happy unfurls like gauze, revealing not a wound, but a series of intricate and beautiful scars.ÊAlex reminds us that though we can't make it through this life unscathed, we can make it through transformed." — Robin Romm, author of The Mercy Papers and The Mother Garden

“Alex Lemon makes Happy harrowing and upbeat, writing with a poet's touch about the illness that overtook his jock life….Nonfiction writers and poets have a secret alliance — working toward defining a truth instead of making it up. So when we get a twofer of a poet writing memoir, the results trend toward glinting precision.” — The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A page-turner on par with the best thrillers...Lemon's exquisite prose blasts us out of our own time, heart, brain, and body into his, making an acute empathy possible. Read this and weep, laugh, weep." Library Journal, Editors' Pick

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.”– Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Poet Lemon packs the poignant wallop of a sprawling Dickensian novel with his taut, speedy memoir.” - Denver Post

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March 1997, Macalester College

The world whirls when I crack open. Bookshelf, poster board, the windows wink their eyes. The digital clock is a red blur. Every light pulses yelloworange and brilliant, and the TV is a blue splash.

When I stand, the dorm room spins and I tip, slamming my chin into the bed frame. My temple rocks off of the cinder-block wall and I crash back to the mattress. The first pounding breath is Good morning you asshole and my insides rubberband.

Woozy and flushed, I thrash through the bedcovers while the cave of my room rolls. I lip-smack away the bloody taste in my mouth. The more I struggle to focus, the more my vision twirls. I'm hazy faced. I'm fucked.

The bedsprings shriek when I slide off the mattress, and planting my feet in a heap of clothes, I rise for a second, and then go facedown. I gnarl the insides of my cheeks and bite my tongue. Rolling to my back, I gulp the blood down so I don't choke.

"SHIT. SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!" I yell, laughing. This is a dream; I'm the first man on Mars. "Jesus Christ, man! I'm down! MAN DOWN! Did you see that, Brad?" I look around the spinning dorm for my roommate. "I'm a fucking mess. A mess, man, a mess!" The floor is covered in moldy T-shirts and socks. "I'm like fuckin' Gumby down here." I try to slow my breath. "Hey, Brad. How 'bout a hand? Yo, Brad?"

Lying in the dust balls, I bark for help.

I try to get up again, and smash into the wooden legs of Brad's bed, and fall back down. Each time I rise a giant fist knocks the wind out of me. Sitting on my knees, my head is all clatter and thud. I rock feebly from side to side. I go facedown on the warm slick floor.

I swish bloody acid between the gaps in my teeth and swallow back a mouthful of puke. Blood-fur covers my tongue. The computer monitor quakes when I finally make it up. I cover my head with a wet towel but nothing blunts out the throbbing. Half of my face is numb.

I must have drunk a bottle of Drano last night, snorted a bag of glass, and leapt open-armed from the top of the stairs. A tree. A roof. The moon.

There is a warm beer on my desk and more in the fridge. A bunch of Vicodin in the drawer. I pop a handful of pills and chug. With my eyes half-shut, I watch students milling around outside.

"Happy! Hurry the fuck up." The shaking door startles me. "Happy, let's go!"

I've been staring out the window all day, watching campus beehive into spring while Sam Cooke sings the same songs over and over on my stereo. Hours ago, Brad came in and grabbed his backpack. My sketchbook was open in my lap but I hadn't drawn anything, only rubbed my hands with oil pastels and fingerprinted the paper. I grinned at him, said I wasn't going to class, that I had another sore throat, the crud, and then slapped myself. He laughed when I gave him the thumbs-up. I couldn't feel my body.

"Yo!" Someone kicks the door again, and I realize the light I've been watching clamor through the oaks has nearly vanished.

"It's time for practice, Happy!" The door jolts. "Let's go, you pussy."

"Happy. Get a move on!" It's a different voice. The doorknob turns. "Move, man! Let's go, Chet!"

My head is so fuzzy, a minute passes before I figure out they're yelling at me. I'm still not used to these new nicknames — my girlfriend and Casey and Brad are the only people who call me by my real name. Some of my teammates started calling me Chet after Chet Lemon, an outfielder who used to play for the Detroit Tigers. Everyone else, even people I don't know, calls me Happy. Happy, Happy, Happy.

"I'm going I'm going, you fuck-O's!" The words mash in my mouth. A Chet Lemon baseball card is pushpinned above my desk. I woke one morning last week, whipped my pockets inside out, and a cooked chicken breast and the Chet Lemon baseball card fell out. Happy was written in Sharpie up and down my arms. My hands were flayed. They looked like they'd been dipped in blood.

"Just a second, guys." I swallow a handful of amphetamines to get my heart going for practice. The door shakes and there's more shouting. I fall again putting my sweatpants on, then clamber up and grab my baseball gear. "One goddamn second!"

Dizzy and Brian and Justin are in the hallway when I open the door. Justin looks angry. I flutter-wave my fingers like a parade queen but no one laughs. Brian throws a baseball into his mitt. "Ready to go, Hap?" Dizzy asks.

"Yeah, sorry. Taking a nap," I say. All of the warping noise is giving me a headache. It feels like I've been asleep for weeks. I force a grin.

"We gotta go. Now!" Justin shouts, loping down the hall.

"Shit, Chester," Brian yips over his shoulder. "We're gonna be late 'cause of you. Coach will be pissed."

Each baseball booms; they carom off of my catcher's mitt and pummel my forearms and chest protector. My mouth fills with bloody spit after I drop to block a curveball and it shoots up into my face — the mask tears away, burning my chin. Two pitches later, a fastball bounces in front of me and I take it in the ear.

"What kinda lipstick you wearing today?" Tree yells. "Little fuckin' bitch!" He kicks the fake mound. "Shit!" The shout echoes through the Field House. "Who is this fuckin' guy?"

"Fuck you," I say under my breath. "Eat shit. Blow me. Suck a fatty. Die, asshole."

I'm used to being the best. A sweet music usually floods me when I play baseball — my body whirs smoothly, perfectly, when I sprint around the diamond. Gripping the bat, I am wielding lightning. I caress my mitt's leathery pocket and can feel my heartbeat. It is all a part of me. It is all mine.

But right now it feels like I'm filled with asphalt. I can't see.

Tree raises his arms above his head; lifts his left leg into himself, where it hovers for a millisecond; then pushes off of the pitching rubber and thrusts himself toward the plate, whipping the baseball at me with his right arm. I poke the mitt out at his pitches, stabbing at balls, and some ricochet away, blasting off of the concrete wall, but most of them burrow into me.

Justin and Ronnie — two of the other catchers — keep shooting me looks. "What the fuck is wrong with you, Chet? Happy forget how to catch a baseball? Let's go, man."

"Yo, Happy, you OK?"

I try to slap feeling back into my forearms and hands, and then gaze into my mitt. After twisting the laces, I put one of the strings in my mouth, yank it tight, and punch my fist into the leather pocket.

"It's all good," I tell Ronnie, but it feels like my veins are filled with Icy Hot. "Little sweat in my eyes."

"Well, let's go then, playboy," Ronnie laughs. "Happy time." He flips a ball to me but I miss it and it bounces away.

Coach tells me to take a breather so I go to the end of the Field House and sit on a bench. The gym floor is dizzying with colored lines; when we ran wind sprints I thought I was going to tumble headfirst and throw up. I put down as much water as I can and spray the bottle over me. When I lean over the trash can and spit, the ruby phlegm is as thick as yarn. I drop my skullcap over my face and stare into the foam so I don't get the spins. My head is all fucked up. For the rest of practice I listen to my teammates' tinny shouts, the pierce and crack of baseballs and bats and gloves.

"Happy, you coming over tonight?" Rick tips an imaginary bottle to his mouth and then yeeeeaaaahhs, refreshed. Everyone in the locker room laughs. "You know you want to," he says. "See you at nine."

"Don't know, man. I got a ton of shit to do before spring break."

"WHAT? This is college, Happy. You got nothing better to do," he laughs. "We'll sit around doing econometrics. Nothing better to do."

"Nuthin' at all!" Tom stands in front of the lockers buck naked, helicoptering a towel over his head. "Nothing at aaaalllllll!" he groans. His voice goes deep, and then he croons, "Eeeeeeconomeeeeeetriiiiiiiiiics!!"

"You're a young buck, Happy," Tree says dully. "You'll learn. Put your Marx in your back pocket, wherever you wake up tomorrow, you'll know it all. Assmosis, my young man."

"Not sure, fellas. Feeling kinda fucked up." I try to laugh, but I have to put my head down and close my eyes. "Got a cold coming on. The flu. Couldn't see nuthin' out there."

"Didn't look like it." Tree laughs sarcastically. "You gotta man up, little bitch!"

"A bad day, Hap," Tom says. "Just don't do it again."

"Shit, you don't need to see anything to have a little fun." Tree saunters through the locker room. "You can feel your way home. All those first-year girls. All those Miss Luckies! Oh, to be young again!" He walks by and shoves me. "Come on, Happy. Come ooooooowwwwn, little bitch!"

Ronnie lifts his fingertips to his lips and inhales. "Who's gonna be the bad guy tonight, Happy? You? You gonna be the bad guy!" He flicks the fantasy joint to the floor and sashays toward the showers. "You want to be the bad guy."

"You're always the fucking bad guy, man," I laugh. "I was playing. Course I'm coming over. Someone get me some gin and a case of bottles at Park."

I'm cradling my head when Django slides out of the shower and fucks the air. He sings high-pitched and dances the cabbage patch, then the running man. He karate-chops the steam. Someone calls him an Ichabod Crane-looking motherfucker.

Copyright © 2010 by Alex Lemon


Meet the Author

Alex Lemon was born in Iowa, and lives in Ft. Worth, Texas. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Mosquito (Tin House Books) and Hallelujah Blackout (Milkweed Editions), and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Happy 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
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tryingtosurvive More than 1 year ago
This book was unlike any other I memoir I have had the pleasure (or confusion) of reading. I prefer memoirs, I want and need to read stories that are true, no matter how devestating or disturbing they may be. Life can be disturbing, devastating, painful and ugly. Yet, the mojority of these writers find a way to learn to live with the painfully devastating and ugly parts of their lives. They do not simply "GET OVER IT and live happily ever after... that is not reality. This book was interesting because of how original the issues are, especially considering his young age, "Ali" drinks and drugs more than the average college student even though he is aware of his physical issues. The writing was a little confusing to me it seemed to jump around more than any other book I have read. Yet, in the REALISTIC ending, what shines through is that he never gives up...that, along with the amazing love and very strong bond he and his (slightly ADD) Mother share...NO MATTER WHAT, Love prevails (this is not a hopeless romantic speaking, either...the love for her son was/is so real while also so difficult.
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SMULawyer More than 1 year ago
I'd read reviews, so I knew what was going to happen to Lemon, but I could not put it down. His writing, his story--it captivated me. I was mad and terrified and disappointed and angry and nearly every other emotion. Terrific raw story. Intense. Would read his writing again.
charlottesweb93 More than 1 year ago
Happy is a real life honest memoir about a hard partying college kid. It could almost be comparable to A Million Little Pieces, except it is real. And not quite so graphic. Alex Lemon is just a kid who comes face to face with his own mortality at the tender age of nineteen. The book is well written and fluid. This memoir almost reads like a novel. Full of coming of age angst and even a little bit of fear. Given the fact that the author is telling his story, you know there is a happy ending, but at what cost?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alex Lemon does a great job expressing the struggles he faced while trying to cope with his first brain bleed and then his second. The way he tries to mask his pain and fear through drugs and alcohol shows how he has been struggling with not only the present but the past as well. Happy is funny, sad, painful and amazing.