In the fall of 1997 Alex Lemon was a healthy, carefree student and baseball star at Macalester College. But during the spring of his freshman year, his happy-go-lucky world melted away following a three-strikes-and-you're out series of events. The star athlete and party guy suffered a stroke followed by two brain hemorrhages.
In his memoir, "Happy," readers are swept along with Lemon on his turbulent two-year ride as he attempts to compensate for his rapidly deteriorating mental and physical health. His numerous misguided efforts at self-medication, through increasingly frenetic drug and alcohol use, are recounted with frightening and unsavory details. Many times during this period he was cruel and uncaring to family members and friends. He drops into a dark tunnel of depression -- a painful circumstance for a young man once known by many on campus only by the name of Happy.
Eventually, he undergoes brain surgery. Six days after the operation he regains consciousness. Less than two weeks after surgery he leaves the hospital. Lemon skillfully captures the harrowing, mundane and emotionally messy qualities of his slow recovery.
"Not being able to read is making me crazy. Words crawl across the page like they're alive, like bugs. They jump. They tick. So I barely open my eyes. Everything feels right there in front of me, but it's all out of reach. It's all a tease. It would be easier if I were blind."
As much as this memoir chronicles Lemon's recovery, it also captures the loving relationship between a man and his mother, the quirky, loud and ever-dependable woman he calls "Ma."
"I start to tumble when the weight moves into my feet but her arms lock against me. Muscles spasm like animals trapped under my skin, but she's right there. I move the walker a few inches, listing and bellyaching, but with Ma's help, I use the walker and my halting legs and take my first step."
Lemon has also written two collections of poetry ("Mosquito" and "Hallelujah Blackout") and he views the world with a poet's eye.
"Happy" is graphically raw and in-your-face; Lemon's dexterity with words forces the reader into gritty latitudes no one would visit voluntarily, and the level of detail will cause some readers to squirm. But "Happy" is an honest voyage into Lemon's keen mind, remarkable spirit and loving heart, and it shouldn't be missed.
Julie Foster is a freelance book reviewer and writer in Sacramento and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.