Alex Lemon tells us with his title, Happy: A Memoir, that all is not as it seems. After all, what self-respecting memoirist would be so unabashedly earnest as to pick such a name without an ulterior motive?
Not this one.
"Happy," it turns out, is a nickname Lemon gets from boisterous college friends and baseball teammates. They mostly recede into the background as Lemon copes with a potentially fatal disorder that makes his brain stem bleed.
His illness makes him disoriented and numb all over. It makes him vomit and spit blood. It distorts his vision so he cannot see straight and causes him to fall down in the shower. As he tells his story, Lemon's nickname comes to seem less like the invention of a carefree coed and more like an unfortunate coincidence.
And yet he convinces you of how strong he is, using the same charm he employs to win friends on campus.
Lemon's writing is impressive. With the knowing use of run-on sentences, multiple words combined into one and other tricks, he makes his words evoke his personal story, which is about youth and death.
Sometimes his attitude can seem college-age macho, sort of slapping away the pity you might otherwise feel. Lemon seems slightly allergic to pity, and he avoids it by alienating some of the people closest to him. You can almost feel his powerlessness to avoid some of the self-destructive stuff he does.
He drinks, he smokes, he has plenty of sex. At first he treats his illness like a distraction from his hard-partying life. When it takes over, the reader is rooting for him — and hoping that instead of killing him, the illness will help rebuild his spirit by letting him prevail.
In Lemon's world, everyday objects seem alive, creating a stark contrast to his debilitating and frightening illness. Since we know the ending (he lives to write his memoir, after all), it's a credit to Lemon's storytelling ability that he keeps readers engaged to the end.