Reviewed by Michael Paul Mason
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In 1996, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor sustained a stroke that would lead to a bestselling account called My Stroke of Insight, an effusive and preachy book that makes a brain bleed sound like a weekend Buddhist retreat. In 1997, the would-be poet Alex Lemon suffered a similar lesion, but his condition didn’t result in any earth-shattering revelations–thankfully. Instead, Lemon offers up Happy: A Memoir, a gritty, human portrayal of a young life sidelined by reoccurring strokes.
When we first meet Lemon, he’s Happy, a drug-addled freshman whose brain houses a timebomb–a vascular malformation inclined to arbitrarily bleed. Instead of hammering away with realizations and epiphanies about the condition, Lemon evokes the actual confusion and horror of his predicament with racing prose.
When his head goes haywire, he doesn’t see stars, but ‘a hundred jumping suns.’ Before our eyes, the happy-go-lucky, college baseball player devolves into a scrawny, debilitated patient whose observations only become more penetrating with the growing haze in his head. Lemon’s descent into the neurological inferno is almost unbearable at times–particularly when his relationships begin to unravel along with his mind.
What rescues Happy: A Memoir from the confines of too much gloom is Lemon’s unexpected levity. Most of us shudder to think of the humiliation of getting our pubic hair shaved by a nurse; Happy prays for a raging erection so that he can tell his friends about it. The entire book is peppered with a testosteroned banter that has the dual effect of being both humorous and disquieting in light of Happy’s serious condition. If Lemon errs anywhere, it’s in Happy’s unrelenting proclivities toward self-loathing and subsequent self-sabotage.
There are a shelves and shelves of medical survivor-lit, but it’s ultimately Lemon’s sensitivity–probably borne from two previous collections of poetry he wrote–that makes Happy required reading. Instead of giving into clinical speak, Lemon delivers stylistic proof that a life packed with curse words point to a reality more truthful than any neurobabble could conjur. Call it Lemon’s stroke of genius.
Michael Paul Mason is the author of ‘Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury & Its Aftermath,’ published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His work appears in magazines and newspapers, including Discover, The Believer, and NYT. Learn more at michaepaulmason.com
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