“Happy” earned his nickname. He was a fun-loving baseball player with a pretty girlfriend and hilarious buddies, the catcher on the Macalester College team who liked to joke with his worried mom. As Alex Lemon writes in this by turns harrowing and hopeful memoir, “I’ve always been an all-star.”

Written in the present tense, Happy takes readers rushing along as its narrator realizes that his headaches and vision problems are not just the classic signs of over-indulgence in college partying, but an actual medical condition. Alex goes from being another student enjoying the rare spring sunshine to another patient in the hospital undergoing tests from MRIs to neurological exams. When told that he has undergone a stroke, Lemon and his family are predictably unbelieving at first, but then begin the journey to diagnosing and controlling his multiple health crises. His divorced parents and step-parents all weigh in and attempt to find their own ways to offer support, which range from an enforced rest in North Carolina to a prolonged visit from his mother.

A road trip, a priest and Hurricane Floyd all make appearances in this headlong and compelling memoir, along with alcohol and drug abuse. Yet even with its fascinating story of a young man battling outsized enemies, it is Happy’s language that truly sets it apart. Lemon is a poet, and every paragraph shows it, from a description of walls that “smell like melting gumballs and kerosene” to an unforgettable image of a son’s beloved mother: “Ma turns to me and smiles and my blood gathers and swells.”

Lemon shies from nothing, which can make for grueling (and graphic) reading, especially given the gravity of his subject matter. But he never uses his difficult topic for shock value; instead, thanks to his considerable poetic gifts, it becomes an avenue for exploring the human experience at its most dire. 

Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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