At the end of 2014 I took a two-week cruise to Hawaii and read like mad in preparation for the next draft of my memoir (but also for pleasure!). I didn’t mingle much with others. This was my third adult cruise (I mean since the ’70s): the first one, in the Caribbean, at the end of 2011, I sat at a table every night with a warm group of fake friends. We almost bonded, but then came the cutoff. I never heard from any of them again. My second cruise was to Alaska. I went with my birth father, Frank Verges, and during the course of the week I realized he was suffering from dementia. And still I managed to have a good time. This last cruise I was both traveling alone and not scheduled to share my meals with anyone. A real retreat. I sat in the nicest parts of the Grand Princess. I ate a lot, exercised, slept better than ever in a dark interior cabin. One book I read was Alex Lemon’s Happy.
I don’t have great memories of Lemon. I saw him at the 2007 AWP Conference, heard him read, bought his first poetry collection, Mosquito. I got him to sign it for me. “Thank you for purchasing my book!” he said. Later I noticed that in addition to being young and good-looking, he was popular as hell. I watched him from a distance at an AWP event as people came up to him and shook his hand and so on. I read his book—mostly poems indirectly about his battles with brain disease—and of course realized how gifted he was. I tried to write a review and submit it to Alehouse, the now defunct journal created by my New England College fellow-student Jay Rubin. Jay insisted the short review go through weeks and weeks of revisions. It was like being thrown back into grade school again. Jay emailed me, “I hope you are enjoying this process!” After weeks of back and forth, I gave up. I never published the review of Mosquito. But I never forgot Lemon in spite of these negative associations.
So when I opened Happy I was hoping for some fine writing. Or maybe I was hoping it wouldn’t be so fine. I discovered the only really top-notch passages are the poetic ones related to his catastrophic illness. This book has people coming and going but no characters. Lemon doesn’t make the least bit of effort to draw anyone here except himself. We have a series of names; we have girls, boys, bodies, body parts, parents, doctors, nurses, teammates, coaches. But the book is strong in two areas. It is, as the blurbs on the back tell us, poignant and persuasive when it comes to a body’s succumbing to disease. And this after all was the main point. Lemon knows he’s not really a novelist. But what was equally interesting to me was his vivid depiction of his relationship with his buddies—his bros. Oh and what’s a bro? NPR will help: “[The] pillars [of bro-ness], which may overlap, are stonerish-ness, dude-liness, preppiness, and jockishness.”(For more, see here: Jeah! We Mapped Out the Four Basic Aspects of Being a Bro.)
All through this book, but specially near the beginning, I noticed a dramatic contrast between the rich inner life of the main character, on the one hand, and his easy relationships with his seemingly shallow, generic regular-guy-friends on the other. First some background: during college he was beginning to have vision and balance difficulties, headaches, dizziness—couldn’t, for example, catch the baseball when he needed to, surprising everyone. He brushed these off at first as maybe symptoms of a bad hangover or the flu. Finally he went to the college doctor, who immediately knew something serious might be wrong. The rest of the book is a chronicle of his descent into illness, his experiences in the hospital, his relationship with his mother (“Ma”), and his limping journey to recovery. An interview with the author serves as an epilogue to the book; I was struck by the fact that Lemon speaks about his wish to write a series of essays on masculinity (I have the feeling he’s now published those thoughts). In this book I could experience first-hand, as never before, how virile, popular guys interact with one other. I always suspected, especially in school, that the tough guys, the “real” guys, were continually acting, putting on a good show, role-playing. They may have had inner lives, but they concealed these lives and became the male equivalent of cheerleaders: cool surfers and lifeguards, shut-down ballplayers, taciturn studs emitting the occasional formulaic phrase. In this memoir we see what an act it is—at least for some of them. And definitely for the protagonist. He’s smart. He reads poetry! He does not talk poetry with anyone in the book, especially his teammates. Here’s a passage. Note: Tree is a fellow bro; the narrator’s nickname is Happy.
Tree stares at me, leans to Rick, and says something about the freshman being fucking worthless, just loud enough so everyone can hear it. “Kidding, brudda!” he shouts, punching my arm.
“Man, check your shit.” KJ pushes me. “You’re fucking bush league! BUSH LEAGUE, HAPPY!”
Rick spits in a bottle, pulls down his hat, and nods hello. “Nice to see you, Happy.” He smiles. “Glad ol’ Chester got all his shit done.”
“Whoo ha!” I yell like Busta Rhymes, punching my fists and forcing myself to laugh. “Whoo haaaa! I’m canned already. What a fuckin’ night! Sorry, fellas.” Everyone chuckles watching me fall sideways onto the couch. My head throbs. The world bounces in time with my heartbeat. I hiss a beer open with my key chain, and Rick tosses me a tin of Skoal. When we clink out bottles together it feels like I’ve got a tuning fork inside my chest.
The drinks spill as we spout our apocrypha, and I tell them how good my life was—the big game, the Super 8, at the farmhouse, the playoffs, in the cornfields, the state tournament, the superhero, the pond, jumping naked off the cliffs. And then the tapioca-thick sex stories—the backseat of a Buick, the church parking lot, a friend’s mom’s minivan, with the parents upstairs, while my friends pounded the car’s steamy windows, under the stars on home plate.
“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time,” I say, belching out weed smoke. The light is frayed, grayscale. Empty bottles turret the tabletops.
“BACK IN TIME!” KJ slurs. “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”
And this is typical. The bros are shooting the breeze, not much to say, and yet the narrator is capable of the beautiful “Empty bottles turret the tabletops,” using a poetic trick he is fond of (as are many poets): transforming nouns into verbs. And yet when Happy tries to say something a little bit deeper (“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time”) his friend playfully upbraids him (“BACK IN TIME! Fucking Huey Lewis and the News”). At one point the narrator actually admits, “I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them.”
Much of this book is devoted to the disconnect between bros joking around and a lonely inner soul contemplating both the world around him and his illness, his body betraying him. This reminds me of Genet’s Thief’s Journal: an articulate, sensitive “ruffian” surrounded by inarticulate, insensitive ruffians. And so we witness a divided self: Alex Lemon, “Happy,” plays a role in order to be accepted by his buds, a role helped by genuine enjoyment of drink and baseball and appreciation of the opposite sex, but inside his head he’s comparing the beer bottles to turrets; inside his head he is capable of dazzling language to describe his own pretended superficiality: “We spout our apocrypha.” Apocrypha? Well, that’s stretching the meaning of a word, but it’s spot on: apocrypha as in fakeness, tall tales, a façade of masculinity, easy camaraderie. But inside him he’s focused on the great poets; inside him he’s struggling with the first signs of loss of heath and even of life. In the same vein, here’s a baseball passage; it’s now becoming harder for him to play:
My eyes roll in their sockets, and everything between Coach and me goes blurry. It’s like he hasn’t yet thrown the pitch. Like there is no ball at all. I feel myself falling, legs quivering to right myself, and then, suddenly, the baseball appears right in front of me, shooting celestially through the watercolored light, snipping over the dish. The ball hits the net, and I’ve barely started to swing. The guys watching hoot and clap and I shout, “Fucking shit!” and toss the bat off the ground.
“Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” KJ laughs. “Let’s go, man. Punish that shit!” He sticks a bat between his legs and thrusts his hips. “PUNISH IT, MAN!” He makes gorilla noises. “Get primitive on that shit!”
I love the contrast between “shooting celestially through the watercolored light” and “Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” The inner and outer worlds. A lovely and strong bit of writing about how a sensitive boy can be one of the bros. And that begs the question: The other pack members may not be poets, but they must have inner lives too. Maybe they’re not thinking about celestial shots and watercolored light, but something is going on inside them; they’re just keeping it well-hidden. They’re doing what guys do, especially adolescents. In a sense, you could call Lemon a “closeted artist/intellectual”; his peers might even have the same reaction as Wallace Stevens’s fellow lawyers did to Stevens being a poet: “What?! Wally a poet?” (I realize Lemon is still very young in the passages I’ve quoted, but even at that age he knows he’s an artist.)
As the memoir proceeds and illness takes its toll, the baseball “friends” gradually recede, and there’s much more now about Ma, doctors, girlfriends, etc. The memoir doesn’t have an upbeat ending, though the poet is still very alive and successful in the world. I’ve been looking through my copy of the book and see that I underlined most in the first fifty or so pages. It’s like a horror or disaster movie: the set-up and the first premonitions of disaster are the most intriguing moments. But I found the pleasures of Happy lay mainly in its candid examination of outer coolness/inner depth. On a bigger scale, I’m reminded how our lives are full of different discourse modes: we talk to our pets differently from the way we talk to our boss; we have one way of talking to a spouse, another way to a shoe salesman. Most of us are split into many different voices throughout a single day. Even when, back at AWP in 2007, Lemon said to me, “Thank you for purchasing my book,” he was using the formal word for “buy” that he never would have used with Tree, KJ, or Ma.
Happy contains (among many other things) a complete portrait of a late adolescent who can have it both ways: a rich life as a budding artist alongside easy relationships with other males and acceptance in their peer group. And yet I can’t help juxtaposing the Lemon from this book and the Lemon I observed at AWP, a center of attention, surrounded by supporters and friends. I always used to believe that high school popularity was a very different thing from success later in life, which I assumed depended solely on “artistic,” “intellectual” merit. Now I see that, usually, knowing how to work a crowd, connect with potential followers and influence them, build a network, and fit in with life’s teammates is what most successful people know how to do well, no matter the field. Lemon was training for his later role in the arts when he bonded with fellow bros. These days you are much more likely to hear about Lemon than Christopher Davis, phenomenally talented, reclusive, shy, but not shy in his writing about gay love. At AWP I watched them on a panel discussion together. Lemon stood up at the lectern and read a beautiful elegy. Davis didn’t even want to leave his seat; a somber, ghostly presence (or absence), he didn’t care if the audience liked him or not. And thus high school and college mostly continue, most of the time.
l’ll end with some lines from a Christopher Davis poem:
For My Pen Is
a pink glass office tower erection dominating
our brand new south downtown. Designed
by Chinese architects to intensify evening,
its sun-burned, glaring panes refract twilight,
hot air blossoming, dyeing dull gray sidewalks
bloody, rosy, color of a bad taste in the mouth.
A possum, ripped apart, reminds me of a men’s
room, brown liver served upon a bed of noodles,
death’s stench not unlike ammonia, piss, cologne.
(from the Project for Innovative Poetry blog)