Attempting to accurately portray the complexity of human suffering is something that has stumped many truly great writers. Accounts of anguish have appeared in literature for ages, and the concept of a body and mind in turmoil is one that has been prodded by authors time and time again. However, it is extremely rare that an author or poet can truly grasp the visceral nature of a failing body, and couple it with the emotional distress produced by pain. It is then even more rare that a writer can compile the two in a way that does not cheapen the experience in the transition to narrative. In his debut memoir, Happy, poet Alex Lemon achieves that end, offering a vibrantly carnal account of his physical and emotional struggles with health, relationships, and the battle between life and death.
Throughout the book, readers are introduced to the many personalities of a young, suffering Lemon. These personalities include the party guy, the addict, the sentimentalist, the ailing body, the happy, the abused, the student, the baseball player, the patient, the frustrated, the healing, and most importantly the son. Lemon’s book, which centers on the pain of a young college student coping with brain hemorrhages and past sexual abuse, blossoms into a truly powerful story of perseverance, and the beautiful love that exists between people.
The mother – son dynamic that develops in the book is not always steady, but it is enduring, and that is one of the most important messages in Lemon’s writing. “When Ma speaks, I watch Julie’s reaction, afraid, waiting for her face to droop with recognition. For her to frown disgustedly, knowing about all the nights I stared at Ma from the doorway of my room, quietly sobbing. The hours I watched Ma read on the Salvation Army couch, panicked that she’d be gone if I fell asleep, scared that if I stopped watching her, she’d die” (p. 112). While the memoir goes through the many aspects of solitary healing, Lemon fully recognizes that without the love and support of his mother, he would likely not have pulled through. Whether he was in the hospital, facing brain surgery in a hurricane, hobbling [nearly blind] through his home, or making his first steps alone down the frost-covered sidewalk, it was the personal love from other people that provided him the strength to move forward.
The truly admirable qualities found in Happy are Lemon’s ability to cope with his own hellish experiences, and warp them into a narrative that pulses with beautifully lyrical writing. The memoir radiates with poetic language. “The darkness stills, and as we tip back…moonbright climbs down our bodies. I smile at each of the watershed faces, slashes in the whispering trees. It’s almost morning, midnight, and noon” (p. 124). The nature of the book allows Lemon’s writing to revel in the visceral carnage that accompanies a failing body, and to push his narrative to places that memoirs haven’t gone before. In many points throughout the book, the writing may seem unkempt and vulgar, but each page represents the honest grappling with personal growth in light of physical and emotional distress.
The most gut-wrenching writing in the book comes when there appears to be little hope. Lemon offers up his self-examination in the face of death, and creates his most powerful lines. He writes: ““I want to rupture into a gasp of sorrowful ash because of everything I am. For fucking over my friends and the girls I pushed down in the backseats of Buicks, the girls I unzipped. The ones I’ve told to leave and then treated like shit. Each sip and puff and snort and chew. Pull after pull after pull. For each face I’ve kissed and punched and kicked and wept on. These fists. This throat. The way I’ve held a knife in front of me and how I’ve wrapped my hands around necks. For each thrust. The crack and crumble of ribs. For there is no changing that illbeat in my chest. For how Ma’s face reddens when she cries. How my cousin pointed a knife at me after he was done and threatened people I love, and how I told. For the many ways I’ve bled. For how Ma cries while I walk by the window. For not being brave enough to end it myself” (p. 177). These lines represent the ability Alex Lemon has to polish his personal suffering into a universal dialogue that is accessible to anyone who has ever experienced a minutia of pain or self-deprecation. Lemon leaves no stone left unturned in exorcising his personal demons, and maintains the ability to honestly self-evaluate, serving as a guide to those in similar circumstances.
Although, at times it is a bleak and heavy read, the beauty and truth that Lemon unearths in his experiences has the potential to positively impact each reader. It is an important book that grapples with difficult realities. Happy is not afraid to stand in the face of a culture that would rather cover flaws, and instead embraces them, learns from them, and most importantly allows for a beautiful transformation of the human community. As Lemon leaves it, “I smile, tears mixing with the sweat. I’m openmouthed and gasping, but I speed up to stay next to her. Over the lilting clop of my strides, Ma shifts gears and sings into the endless light” (p. 289).
Submitted by @TripStarkey