Dialogue in Alex Lemon’s Happy


“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 shouts. “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”

“Fireworks over Riverbend Rally and jumping from motorboats and weed in the ditches. Camping and skinny-dipping when the fire started going out.” I go on and on, laughing to myself, eyes sewn shut. “It was like Grease or something. Cruising Main Street and fistfights. Dances after football games and homecoming parades. It was all Mayberry and shit.”

“MAYBERRY! MOTHERFUCKING MAYBERRY!” KJ yells, standing. He mutters something about pissing and uses the wall to feel his way out of the room.

“It’s called Iowa, Happy,” Ronnie says. “No bad guys come from Iowa Falls. Not until Happy Lemon! Yeah, playa!” He laughs and nods, then says that nothing was better than SoCal back in the day.

“Stockton,” Tree says solemnly, and pretends to pour his beer on the floor. “Get that shit right.”

“Shiiiiiit, bro!” Ronnie leans back into the couch and smiles. “Fuck that place.”

I laugh and keep talking, but hardly anyone is listening anymore. Tom and Tree and Ian are watching TV and playing cards. KJ comes back and passes out cold, and Ronnie is blazed. I chug and mumble to myself about fields of soybeans and corncribs in the moonlight. Gravel jamming through the countryside in old Chevelles. Getting high and the Doors and tripping our balls off and Black Sabbath.

“We had fucking birds in the freezer, man.”

“What the fuck did you say, Happy?” Ian turns.

“Pull it together, man! You’re hardly speaking English.”

Everyone is looking at me.

“Birds. We had dead ones … dead birds in the freezer. I’d get some ice, and there one would be. Dead grackles, man. A house finch. Fucking birds, you know? A bird. Wings and beaks and shit? Birds.”

“GRACKLE!” KJ is awake again. “Fucking grackles. That’s crazy good.”

“You serious? That’s fucked up is what it is.”

“Loco shit, Happy.” Ronnie laughs. “But my moms had a taco stand!”

“What? A taco van?”


“Naaaw, I’m playing, you fool! Fucking taco stand.” Ronnie slaps his thigh. “Jesus, no, silly fucks. It was all concrete jungle for me. Ghetto birds!”


“We had birds in the freezer.”

“Happy’s studying too much, it’s making him hallucinate. He thinks he’s fucking Audubon.”

“Assholes.” I pick a shred of loose chew from my lip. “Ma and Bob are artists, man. We had wild shit—bowling balls rolling around the floors, busted mirrors on the walls. Snakeskins tacked above the dinner table. It was awesome.” I shake my head and try to laugh it off. I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them. “Fuckin’ loved it.” I smile, but part of me has always resented it.

“Happy, you’re a goofy bastard. You know that homes?”

This is a passage from the opening chapter of Lemon’s memoir. The list of “rules”—by which I mean the things I’ve been trained to teach my students for what constitutes “good writing”—this dialogue breaks is long. It doesn’t progress the plot. It doesn’t reveal anything about the personalities of the characters (not exactly true but I’ll come back to this). It doesn’t edit natural dialogue—langy, repetitive, fragmentary—to make it literary and intelligible.

In short: this shit would get annihilated in a workshop.

Which makes it great. It’s the most NFive dialogue I’ve read in a very long time. We get so much of it throughout Lemon’s memoir of brain injury, and gradually I came to feel so fully there in the scene. It’s Knausgaardian maybe. Lemon’s greatest talent is his ability (not just through dialogue; chiefly through sensory detail) to so fully recreate the moments of his past, and to edit this dialogue as we naturally tend to as writers would be to lie about the moment. It’s stunning.

But stunning only in retrospect. I wasn’t much “amazed” by the book as others often are by “good writing”—that is, I didn’t feel the language of the book was trying to dazzle me by its goodness. Sure, there are lots of watch-me-now verbs, but more so I was struck by this goofball dialogue. It’s how these characters talk, and when you spend enough time among them you start to hear the very subtle emotional shifts among such nonstop braggadocio.

I loved it. I loved watching literary dialogue get opened up like this.

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