When a writer travels from Texas to Minnesota in January on a book tour, you’ve got to hope some dedicated readers cast off their Snuggie blankets and go out into the subzeros to hear the poor guy read. Turns out, if the writer is a former Minnesotan with a hair-raising, page-turner of a memoir, they will.
Alex Lemon packed both Micawber’s and Magers & Quinn over the weekend, reading from his third book of poetry, “Fancy Beasts” (Milkweed Editions) and his new memoir, “Happy” (Scribner). As a freshman at Macalester, Lemon suffered a stroke resulting from a brain stem malformation, and did his best to ignore its nearly debilitating symptoms. He just carried on, which means he just partied on, and the drugs and alcohol and bleeding brain lesion all blur together in this hard-to-read/hard-to-put-down tale.
Other memoirists write eloquently about chemical excess, but Lemon does more than tell a gruesome story in a poet’s sensual voice. He nails the dark side of college life: culture clashes, relationship casualties, the push-pull of parental involvement, the tiny role classes and homework really play in the whole experience.
Lemon, who arrived on campus a baseball jock but left a poet, was known by a series of nicknames, including “Happy.” One day he realized that nearly no one knew who he really was, including himself, and no one understood how painful and frightening his life had become.
“That was all me: hiding it all, and not being able to communicate any of it. I was incredibly sneaky and hid everything, even from myself,” he says. In other words, Lemon’s experience is a testament to the power of machismo. It takes a mom to break through that kind of jock attitude, and Lemon’s mom is a peach, a big-hearted and hilarious artist who helped him recover (although it should be noted that more than a decade after his first stroke, Lemon is still plagued by symptoms; he wrote this book wearing an eye patch, peering at a huge computer monitor with the font size cranked up to 350 percent).
“At Micawber’s, after the reading a young man came up to me. His mom had made him go to the reading (she was standing there with him). He thought it was going to suck (his mom slapped his arm and said he was being rude). I said it was fine — I would have said the same thing,” says Lemon, who teaches at Texas Christian University. “Anyway, he’d been in trouble, was in rehab, etc., and he wanted to tell me how powerful it was for him. It really made it all worth it, right there. He said he couldn’t believe he had a good time. I told him he has a good mom, and he sputtered and said ‘yeah.’ It was awesome.”