His freshman year of college, Alex Lemon was supposed to be the star catcher on the Macalester College baseball team. He was the boy getting every girl, the hard-partying kid who everyone called Happy, often without even knowing his real name. In the spring of 1997, he had his first stroke.
For two years Lemon coped with his deteriorating health by sinking deeper into alcohol and drug abuse. His charming and carefree exterior masked his self-destructive and sometimes cruel behavior as he endured two more brain bleeds and a crippling depression. After undergoing brain surgery, he is nursed back to health by his free-spirited artist mother, who once again teaches him to stand on his own.
Alive with unexpected humor and sensuality, Happy is a hypnotic self-portrait of a young man confronting the wreckage of his own body; it is also the deeply moving story of a mother's redemptive and healing powers. Alex Lemon's Technicolor sentences pop and sing as he writes about survival--of the body and of the human spirit.
A Conversation with Author Alex Lemon
Q: Happy is one of the nicknames you were given in college. How would you describe this persona that you inhabited in college?
A: Happy was/is carefree, casual, and jubilant. Excessive in every facet of a young man's life. Yearning for the good time, what probably seemed to most people who knew me like I was interested in pleasure, getting fucked up. At the same time, I tried to make everyone else feel good (because I felt so shitty). I was friendly to everyone, and all of the swaggering guy-talk and joking was, like it is for many young men who don't know how to talk about how they feel, the way men I knew showed affection for each other. I hug everyone now, but, for whatever reason "men" didn't do that; we'd call each other douche bag or asshole. Compassion was punching someone in the shoulder. So many people knew who "Happy" was, but I wore that Happy Mask so well that no one really knew who I was. No one knew what dark emptiness I felt inside me because I was tricking everyone around me. And really, I'd lost myself so completely that I was deluding myself. The more I tried to be Happy, the more I felt like I didn't exist at all. And that's really the emotional key to the entire book, that Happy was this surface character, like a body suit, a mask that didn't allow anyone in to see how troubled I was.
Q: Reading this book is an incredibly visceral experience. It opens with you waking up with bouncing vision and an aching body; the whole room is spinning. It's disorienting in a way that puts the reader right inside your body.
A: Good! I did my best to replicate that feeling, that unnerving dislocation that is, at the same time incredibly gut wrenching. There's such a huge, huge challenge in trying to articulate pain and discomfort because it's so located in only one way in each individual person. And I'd much rather have someone react to my work with deep feelings--love, disgust, disbelief, compassion, amazement even palpable dislike--than a shoulder shrug.
Q: How would you describe the kind of person you were before your stroke?
A: On the surface, I was trying to be the All-American boy--I did all the things that "real men" are supposed to--played sports, partied, casually hooked up, woke up in strange places and laughed about it all, etc. But I was much more complicated than that. As much as I tried to peel myself through my self destruction, I could never get through all of the layers. I was interested in my classes but all of the people around me seemed so smart that I'd tell my best friend Casey that I was going to class and then I'd walk around the neighborhood getting high. Later, I'd go back to my room and read. I've always read a lot. A severe and radical separation occurred when the brain bleeds started, but even before that I felt different than everyone. I was already confused and scared because I kept the sexual abuse I suffered as a boy secret from everyone around me. I was also too interested in the arts and all sorts of artistic and intellectual zaniness to fit in perfectly with most of the athletes, and I liked listening to baseball games and lifting weights too much to feel accepted in the art studios. But I probably spent more time in the ceramic studio than I did playing baseball. I guess I was already floating somewhere in the no-man's land between everything and because, so often young men don't know how to speak about their suffering, I kept it all to myself.
Q: Up until your brain surgery you lived an incredibly physical life, what was it like to have to relearn how to navigate the world when you had such a different physical relationship to it?
A: Imagine being forced to sit motionless when every inch of you itches because like some end-of-day's plague, all of your insides, your organs, even your heart, has athlete's foot. Think about sprinkling yourself with gasoline and then, as you try to will your hand to stop moving, you have to watch as that hand, that hand that used to be under your control, picks up a match, lights it, and then drops it on your lap. But that fire doesn't end it— there's pain of course, but even more traumatic is what happens in your mind as you watch the flames without being able to do anything. You watch, powerless, while it all falls apart. The flame never goes out and it never stops hurting and all you can do is think "Whoa! Shit. I'm on fire."
Q: When did you first start writing?
A: I'd always written. I was raised in a world of art and literature and music, and that home life had a tremendous impact on me. I did my best to ignore it, but it was always a part of my core. We didn't have a TV, so I read and scribbled in journals. I wrote in college, kept notebooks, wrote poems, but I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I thought that being rich would somehow make me feel better about myself. I was a couple of art classes away from an art major. I can't remember why now, but I was deathly afraid of art history. I refused to take it. Maybe, because my vision began failing after the bleeds started that I knew there was no way I could look at slides all day. Or maybe I was just scared and it was easier to follow what seemed like a very clear path to my major in Poli- Sci.
I didn't start taking writing seriously until two of my professors at Macalester College, the wonderful writers Wang Ping and Diane Glancy, told me that writing and studying literature was something that I should consider doing. This happened after I returned to Mac after taking a year off to recover from the brain surgery. It was an incredibly powerful moment for me. I was so depressed and manic and self-destructive. To hear someone I respect say that they thought I was a talented writer was more healing than any medicine or drug I've taken. The year after my surgery, I lived close to campus and for a long while I didn't want to see any of my friends. I couldn't let them see what I'd become and I didn't want to see them because it reminded me of what I lost. My mother, the most amazing person in the world, took care of me, and though it was fraught and hard, she made me want to keep living. There were so many moments during that time that I wanted it all to end, but her vibrant compassion began awakening me to the world. Once I began living on my own, I think it was toward the end of that school year, sometime during the second semester, I started going to my best friend Casey's writing class. Ping watched me hobble noisily into class--at the time I was using a cane, banging it into everything around me and wearing an eye patch--and she asked me straight up what had happened. She didn't treat me like I was pitiable or a freak or a monster, she treated me like I was normal. Ping let me attend the class as often as I wanted. Writing was and is hard and complicated and it's sometimes painful or emotional, but it has always filled me with pleasure. In hindsight I can see how I've always been drawn to those attributes--complexity, challenge, beauty, a bit of pain and deep feeling--but however excruciating writing was, it wasn't self-destructive and it didn't hurt the people around me.
Q: Did it offer some solace?
A: No. But that wasn't the point for me, so I wasn't seeking it out. It was more about acknowledging the actual. The real. That varying degrees of suffering and pain are as much a part of life as breathing and that no matter what sort of trash or wreckage one is digging through, if you look close enough, you can see the that we're always surrounded by a tremendous beauty. Oh, man--does that sound cheesy? Shitbags. Balls. There, I feel better. But seriously, Happy is more than a story about medical trauma or addiction. It's about masculinity and mental illness; and in the end, the book is a love story about a mother and son.
Q: Do you think you would have become a writer if you'd never had any physical problems?
A: I think, no matter how I made my living, I would have written, but that's very different than becoming a writer. I don't really know. What has happened in my life has become such a part of me; I've learned to acknowledge it all, to confront, tend to my feelings about everything that's happened, etc., to such a degree, that I can't imagine that what-if.
Q: You've published several books of poetry. How was the switch to prose?
A: In the beginning it was incredibly difficult. Though I'd always read a lot of prose, I'd spent years leading up to the writing of Happy fully immersed in poetry. So instead of using the precision and focus I used when writing verse to write crisp, clear, vibrant pages of prose, at the start of this project, I was writing a 400-page, hyper-lyrical and endlessly confusing poem. But I practiced, and like almost everything, the more time I spent writing prose, the more that poetry skill set began smoothly transferring to my prose. And with it came a similar pleasure that I comes to me when I write poetry. In the end it was wonderful.
Q: You've been sober for several years. The book doesn't really cover that period of your life. What made you finally want to get sober? When was that? Why do you think it took you so long?
A: I was literally destroying myself. I was never using for fun or to have a good time. I was trying to obliterate myself so I wouldn't think about all those parts of me that spun me into the darkness, all those difficulties that I've had to deal with and face and confront. I started trying to get my shit together in halfway through graduate school. I failed, repeatedly failed and so every few months I'd declare a “Human Experiment" which entailed getting as fucked up as possible and staying that way for as long as I could. Everyone was a winner! At the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to dive back into the darkness. I'm not sure why it took so long. Wait, that's a lie. I do know why it took so long. But first, why don't mammals come out of the womb fully formed?
Q: This book doesn't have the traditional tidy, happy ending. What is your health like now?
A: I didn't want to write that kind of book, and wrap it up with a tidy little bow, because that, to me, seems so incredibly dishonest. A willful ignoring of reality in every way. So much of life is not tidy. To varying degrees suffering and pain are as much a part of our lives as breathing air. And if one pays attention and really sees, all of the messiness, so much of our ugly wrecks, are, yeah, maybe a little ugly, but if you tilt your head or squint just so, or open your eyes wide, they are also tremendously beautiful.
As for my health, I guess there are good days and bad days. I live with visual disabilities--nystagmus and diplopiia and some days you might catch me wearing my eye patch or a black contact that occludes my vision in that eye. I still have some numbness in my face, and sometimes in my hands. My gait has improved but it's still off. I fall to my right. And I can be really awkward. I bumble into corners and knock into walls. If you're walking beside me, I'll knock into you because my steps angle forward and out to make sure I don't tip. I'm a jagged walker. I also have some chronic pain in my back and legs. And all of my symptoms get worse if I'm tired or stressed out and I still have to spend time visiting neurologists and neuropthamologists and every few months I feel like the world is ending and I'll go get an MRI. For the most part, I've learned to deal with the vicissitudes of my health. I know what makes me feel good and I know what will make me feel worse. I have learned to do most of the things I want to do while still taking care of myself.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Right now I'm working really hard on not hitting my head on things. I have a long history of head trauma and it's about time that I put an end to it. I should probably wear a giant foam helmet at all times. As for my writing: I'm working on three projects. The first is a book of prose that picks up where Happy ends: a young man both broken and healed. I'm still very interested in some ideas that were brought up in Happy, like constructs of masculinity, ability/disability, and mental illness, but I'm also thinking more broadly about the idea of fatherhood and the pleasures of the physical body. I'm also at work on my fourth collection of poetry (the third collection, Fancy Beasts, will be published by Milkweed Editions in March). This new collection is a sequence of poems in dialogue with Emerson's "Beauty." Finally, I'm gathering/organizing my essays into a book that I'm calling Rabbit-Hole Music.
(Photo © Ariane Baliznet)