Long Way Home

By Michael Reid Busk

Posted June 24, 2010 in Arts & Culture

It’s right and good that Alex Lemon’s memoir Happy opens with Tom Waits lyrics that go “Choppity chop goes the axe in the woods/You gotta meet me by the fall down tree/A shovel of dirt upon a coffin lid/And I know they’ll come lookin‘ for me, boys . . . ” Both Waits and Lemon live in the world of blood and bone, gristle and horror; with Waits, you encounter crackpot inventors and nun-seducing creeps, while in Happy you’re met from the first by the ooze of medical trauma, the nadir of collegiate self-abuse.

Happy is a brief, gripping symphony based upon an unlikely combination of motifs: parental love, the portrait of the artist as a young man, neurological disease and college guys doing dumb stuff. Young Alex Lemon, raised by his hippie-dippy artsy mother, goes to hippie-dippy artsy Macalester College on a baseball scholarship, wasting himself in a nonstop carnival of bad booze, easy sex, and whatever drugs are on hand. Here and there he makes time for amphetamine-electrified baseball practice, poetry and his sketchbook. But mostly he is the center of a scene that is every mother’s nightmare: half king, half jester, Lemon gets nicknamed “Happy,” and throughout the beginning of the book, he seems destined, with his binges and blackouts, for an adulthood of sitting in circles in church basements, sipping bad coffee and telling the others that his name is Alex and he is, indeed, an alcoholic.

But biology intervenes before his friends or family can. During his freshman year, Lemon begins to realize the cause of his frequent headaches and vertigo might be more than Wild Turkey. One stroke follows another; an aneurism—a bleeding brain. The sensible route would be sobering up, but instead he doubles down, poisoning his body and wrecking his relationships until he’s operated on by a Miami neurosurgeon, a 10-hour procedure—nearly prevented by Hurricane Floyd—that is only the beginning of his recovery. Lemon shares more with Waits than grisly content: like Waits, who’s a verseman first and a musician second, Lemon is a poet who came into a memoir after publishing two marvelous and highly acclaimed collections. For many memoirists, language is a means, not an end, and they pound out their sentences with blunt instruments. Lemon, however, does to language what a sushi chef does to ginger and carrots and ahi—he shears, he juliennes, he slices, arranging the words into rolls of sentences as surprising as they are wonderful. On the first page alone Lemon gives us “Moonlight slings through the windows. The hardwood floor is ice . . . Blinding, the stars are rips in the sky.”

Any decent sophomore creative writing major can compose pretty poeticisms, but Lemon is more disciplined, more imaginative, more brutal. The book’s linguistic power stems not from his employment of $10 words, but his ability to arrange ten-cent words in ways you’ve never seen. “Through the filthy glass, I watch the street below thicken with morning light. A slow brightness envelops the elms. Daybreak weaves Dayton Avenue with a rich, stirless luxury.” Lemon does with verbs what Vermeer did with light, and like the Dutch Master, Lemon uses language to illuminate the physical world, literally and figuratively. With an almost yogic attention to the affective life of the body, Lemon refuses to meander into cliché, featherweight moral or false wisdom. Truth does not spark like a light bulb over Lemon’s head in a mawkish epiphany; rather, the truth is won by tooth and claw, physical therapy and IV-drip, but most of all, maternal love. Lemon’s mother’s weirdness masks a dogged care for her son, both before his stroke and after, and while Happy spikes and plummets with Lemon’s raucous fun and his poor life decisions, it is her magnanimity as much as his fierce persistence that keeps the book from being merely a cautionary tale.

Nor is this a Humpty Dumpty story, a body’s falling apart before it is put back together again. Both Lemon’s soul and body are at stake in Happy, and it would have been possible for his body to rejuvenate while his spirit shriveled; ironically, without the need for his body to heal, his soul likely would not have recovered. But the trauma of his neurological condition shocks him out of his self-destruction, and by the book’s end, it feels right and good that he is riding a bicycle uphill with his mother: “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.” To quote Waits again, Lemon takes the long way home, but at the end of his odyssey, that’s where he finds himself.

Happy: A Memoir by Alex Lemon, Scribner Books, Hardcover, 304 pgs. List Price $25.


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