Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book review: 'Happy' by Alex Lemon

Dallas Morning News, Sunday, January 10, 2010

We are, as a culture, obsessed with medical dramas. Just look at the history of television and you'll see dozens of shows based in hospitals, from St. Elsewhere to ER to House.

And while plenty of books have been written about medicine from the doctor's perspective, far fewer have come from the patients. Rarer still are those written by men. One thinks of William Styron's Darkness Visible, about his descent into depression; last year's Guts by Robert Nylen, about his battle with cancer; or Tony Judt's recent work for the New York Review of Books about suffering from ALS. Alex Lemon's Happy is a welcome addition to that short bookshelf.

The title is itself deliberately deceptive. "Happy" is the author's nickname from when he was a foul-mouthed, hard-partying catcher for the baseball team at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. As we meet him at the start of the book, he thinks: "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." His head is "fuzzy," he can't focus, he has vertigo so bad that he falls over getting dressed, and his vision is blurry and bounces so badly that he can't catch a baseball.

An MRI reveals that Happy has a vascular malformation in his brain and that it has been hemorrhaging.

What follows is Lemon's chronicle of living with the ailment, with the help of friends, lovers, family and lots of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. When that proves impossible, he decides to have the malformation operated on. The problem is on the brain stem, and the surgery puts him at risk of death. Lemon's description of his erratic behavior in the face of his fear – leading up to the surgery and during his recovery – is gripping, visceral and moving.

Lemon's tales of debauchery and sheer panic make for as compelling a story as others by young men who party too much and put themselves in peril, such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (however disingenuous) and Brad Land's Goat. The book is full of memorable observations, such as his description of a neurologist's exam room and its row upon row of plastic models of brains that "line and stack the shelves like championship basketballs" and moments of honest pain, such as when he uses an X-Acto knife "like a toothpick" to slice his gums when he chews tobacco while anticipating his surgery.

Needless to say, Lemon survived; he now teaches English at Texas Christian University. In this fine memoir, he touches briefly on at least one more subject – his abuse as a child at the hands of a teenage cousin – that would merit further autobiography. If he finds he has the strength (for he still suffers some from his illness) and emotional resilience to write, it too would be welcome.

Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of Publishing