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.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
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
An Interview with Alex Lemon
Happy is one of the nicknames you were given in college. How would you describe this persona that you inhabited in college?
Happy was/is carefree, casual, and jubilant. Excessive in every facet of a young man's life. Yearning for the good time, what probably seemed to most people who knew me like I was interested in pleasure, getting f****d up. At the same time, I tried to make everyone else feel good (because I felt so s***ty). I was friendly to everyone, and all of the swaggering guy-talk and joking was, like it is for many young men who don't know how to talk about how they feel, the way men I knew showed affection for each other. I hug everyone now, but, for whatever reason "men" didn't do that; we'd call each other douche bag or a**hole. Compassion was punching someone in the shoulder. So many people knew who "Happy" was, but I wore that Happy Mask so well that no one really knew who I was. No one knew what dark emptiness I felt inside me because I was tricking everyone around me. And really, I'd lost myself so completely that I was deluding myself. The more I tried to be Happy, the more I felt like I didn't exist at all. And that's really the emotional key to the entire book, that Happy was this surface character, like a body suit, a mask that didn't allow anyone in to see how troubled I was.
Reading this book is an incredibly visceral experience. It opens with you waking up with bouncing vision and an aching body; the whole room is spinning. It's disorienting in a way that puts the reader right inside your body.
Good! I did my best to replicate that feeling, that unnerving dislocation that is, at the same time incredibly gut wrenching. There's such a huge, huge challenge in trying to articulate pain and discomfort because it's so located in only one way in each individual person. And I'd much rather have someone react to my work with deep feelings -- love, disgust, disbelief, compassion, amazement even palpable dislike -- than a shoulder shrug.
How would you describe the kind of person you were before your stroke?
On the surface, I was trying to be the All-American boy -- I did all the things that "real men" are supposed to -- played sports, partied, casually hooked up, woke up in strange places and laughed about it all, etc. But I was much more complicated than that. As much as I tried to peel myself through my self-destruction, I could never get through all of the layers. I was interested in my classes but all of the people around me seemed so smart that I'd tell my best friend Casey that I was going to class and then I'd walk around the neighborhood getting high. Later, I'd go back to my room and read. I've always read a lot. A severe and radical separation occurred when the brain bleeds started, but even before that I felt different than everyone. I was already confused and scared because I kept the sexual abuse I suffered as a boy secret from everyone around me. I was also too interested in the arts and all sorts of artistic and intellectual zaniness to fit in perfectly with most of the athletes, and I liked listening to baseball games and lifting weights too much to feel accepted in the art studios. But I probably spent more time in the ceramic studio than I did playing baseball. I guess I was already floating somewhere in the no-man's land between everything and because, so often young men don't know how to speak about their suffering, I kept it all to myself.
Up until your brain surgery you lived an incredibly physical life, what was it like to have to relearn how to navigate the world when you had such a different physical relationship to it?
Imagine being forced to sit motionless when every inch of you itches because like some end-of-day's plague, all of your insides, your organs, even your heart, has athlete's foot. Think about sprinkling yourself with gasoline and then, as you try to will your hand to stop moving, you have to watch as that hand, that hand that used to be under your control, picks up a match, lights it, and then drops it on your lap. But that fire doesn't end it -- there's pain of course, but even more traumatic is what happens in your mind as you watch the flames without being able to do anything. You watch, powerless, while it all falls apart. The flame never goes out and it never stops hurting and all you can do is think "Whoa! S**t. I'm on fire."
When did you first start writing?
I'd always written. I was raised in a world of art and literature and music, and that home life had a tremendous impact on me. I did my best to ignore it, but it was always a part of my core. We didn't have a TV, so I read and scribbled in journals. I wrote in college, kept notebooks, wrote poems, but I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I thought that being rich would somehow make me feel better about myself. I was a couple of art classes away from an art major. I can't remember why now, but I was deathly afraid of art history. I refused to take it. Maybe, because my vision began failing after the bleeds started that I knew there was no way I could look at slides all day. Or maybe I was just scared and it was easier to follow what seemed like a very clear path to my major in Poli-Sci.
I didn't start taking writing seriously until two of my professors at Macalester College, the wonderful writers Wang Ping and Diane Glancy, told me that writing and studying literature was something that I should consider doing. This happened after I returned to Mac after taking a year off to recover from the brain surgery. It was an incredibly powerful moment for me. I was so depressed and manic and self-destructive. To hear someone I respect say that they thought I was a talented writer was more healing than medicine or drug I've taken. The year after my surgery, I lived close to campus and for a long while I didn't want to see any of my friends. I couldn't let them see what I'd become and I didn't want to see them because it reminded me of what I lost. My mother, the most amazing person in the world, took care of me, and though it was fraught and hard, she made me want to keep living. There were so many moments during that time that I wanted it all to end, but her vibrant compassion began awakening me to the world. Once I began living on my own, I think it was toward the end of that school year, sometime during the second semester, I started going to my best friend Casey's writing class. Ping watched me hobble noisily into class -- at the time I was using a cane, banging it into everything around me and wearing an eye patch -- and she asked me straight up what had happened. She didn't treat me like I was pitiable or a freak or a monster, she treated me like I was normal. Ping let me attend the class as often as I wanted. Writing was and is hard and complicated and it's sometimes painful or emotional, but it has always filled me with pleasure. In hindsight I can see how I've always been drawn to those attributes -- complexity, challenge, beauty, a bit of pain and deep feeling -- but however excruciating writing was, it wasn't self-destructive and it didn't hurt the people around me.
Did it offer some solace?
No. But that wasn't the point for me, so I wasn't seeking it out. It was more about acknowledging the actual. The real. That varying degrees of suffering and pain are as much a part of life as breathing and that no matter what sort of trash or wreckage one is digging through, if you look close enough, you can see the that we're always surrounded by a tremendous beauty. Oh, man -- does that sound cheesy? S***bags. B***s. There, I feel better. But seriously, Happy is more than a story about medical trauma or addiction. It's about masculinity and mental illness; and in the end, the book is a love story about a mother and son.
Do you think you would have become a writer if you'd never had any physical problems?
I think, no matter how I made my living, I would have written, but that's very different than becoming a writer. I don't really know. What has happened in my life has become such a part of me; I've learned to acknowledge it all, to confront, tend to my feelings about everything that's happened, etc., to such a degree, that I can't imagine that what-if.
You've published several books of poetry. How was the switch to prose?
In the beginning it was incredibly difficult. Though I'd always read a lot of prose, I'd spent years leading up to the writing of Happy fully immersed in poetry. So instead of using the precision and focus I used when writing verse to write crisp, clear, vibrant pages of prose, at the start of this project, I was writing a 400-page, hyper-lyrical, and endlessly confusing poem. But I practiced, and like almost everything, the more time I spent writing prose, the more that poetry skill set began smoothly transferring to my prose. And with it came a similar pleasure that I comes to me when I write poetry. In the end it was wonderful.
You've been sober for several years. The book doesn't really cover that period of your life. What made you finally want to get sober? When was that? Why do you think it took you so long?
I was literally destroying myself. I was never using for fun or to have a good time. I was trying to obliterate myself so I wouldn't think about all those parts of me that spun me into the darkness, all those difficulties that I've had to deal with and face and confront. I started trying to get my s**t together in halfway through graduate school. I failed, repeatedly failed and so every few months I'd declare a "Human Experiment" which entailed getting as f****d up as possible and staying that way for as long as I could. Everyone was a winner! At the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to dive back into the darkness. I'm not sure why it took so long. Wait, that's a lie. I do know why it took so long. But first, why don't mammals come out of the womb fully formed?
This book doesn't have the traditional tidy, happy ending. What is your health like now?
I didn't want to write that kind of book, and wrap it up with a tidy little bow, because that, to me, seems so incredibly dishonest. A willful ignoring of reality in every way. So much of life is not tidy. To varying degrees suffering and pain are as much a part of our lives as breathing air. And if one pays attention and really sees, all of the messiness, so much of our ugly wrecks, are, yeah, maybe a little ugly, but if you tilt your head or squint just so, or open your eyes wide, they are also tremendously beautiful.
As for my health, I guess there are good days and bad days. I live with visual disabilities -- nystagmus and diplopiia and some days you might catch me wearing my eye patch or a black contact that occludes my vision in that eye. I still have some numbness in my face, and sometimes in my hands. My gait has improved but it's still off. I fall to my right. And I can be really awkward. I bumble into corners and knock into walls. If you're walking beside me, I'll knock into you because my steps angle forward and out to make sure I don't tip. I'm a jagged walker. I also have some chronic pain in my back and legs. And all of my symptoms get worse if I'm tired or stressed out, and I still have to spend time visiting neurologists and neuropthamologists, and every few months I feel like the world is ending and I'll go get an MRI. For the most part, I've learned to deal with the vicissitudes of my health. I know what makes me feel good and I know what will make me feel worse. I have learned to do most of the things I want to do while still taking care of myself.
What are you working on next?
Right now I'm working really hard on not hitting my head on things. I have a long history of head trauma and it's about time that I put an end to it. I should probably wear a giant foam helmet at all times. As for my writing: I'm working on three projects. The first is a book of prose that picks up where Happy ends: a young man both broken and healed. I'm still very interested in some ideas that were brought up in Happy, like constructs of masculinity, ability/disability, and mental illness, but I'm also thinking more broadly about the idea of fatherhood and the pleasures of the physical body. I'm also at work on my fourth collection of poetry (the third collection, Fancy Beasts, will be published by Milkweed Editions in March 2010). This new collection is a sequence of poems in dialogue with Emerson's "Beauty." Finally, I'm gathering/organizing my essays into a book that I'm calling Rabbit-Hole Music.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Disappointing memoir. My expectations were a bit high and the delivery was weak for me. Memoir's in general seem to be completely unrealistic. For example, you have Lemon here who is a critically acclaimed poet and a decent storyteller, yet in his memoir he's a typical drug-taking, girl chasing, one-of-boys, where every conversation is so shallow between his friends. It's a miracle where he acquire his skills as a writer. Every other word in this memoir is a 4 letter curse word, completely shallow dialogue, and this same "scene" over and over. It just didn't work for me at all. Shades of "Tiny Little Pieces" here. The idea that Lemon can't remember much because of his physical malformation in his brain stem and all the drug and alcohol he's consuming, but he has no problem recalling detailed information about intimate conversations throughout his ordeal. It just doesn't wash, and memoirs can't have it both ways. To say you don't remember much, but then remember detailed conversation always has me on guard. Just call it fiction, based on my experiences. That's just me, I could be wrong. One strong part of the work was Alex's mother. She an unconventional mom with a love for her son with is undeniable. Was the brain malformation a cause or effect of his continued drug and alcohol abuse? Lemon's hedonistic behavior continues after the defect in his brain is detected, which doesn't really add to any empathy for Lemon, but that's addiction right? Lemon must have some God given talent for writing, because he certainly didn't learn it a College according to the memoir.
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.
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.
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?
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.