by Paul Guest; Ecco, 2010; 208 pages; $21.99
There is something unique about humans, something that transcends opposable thumbs or the creation of art. Apparently, there is within us a gene that makes us sit down and write our life stories in book form. Thousands of them, big and small, are published every year. And so it goes with yet another: poet Paul Guest's memoir One More Theory About Happiness.
Guest is the author of three poetry anthologies. The most recent, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, was published in 2008. A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Guest wrecked a bicycle and, it turned out, his spinal cord, when he was 12 years old. What followed was a series of risky surgeries and months of painful physical therapy. Guest never regained control of his extremities, confined to a wheelchair for life.
The first few chapters contain Guest's dry, clinical account of his accident and ensuing physical therapy. Blaring honesty is a tool Guest invokes often, either to shock the reader or simply state a truth he feels no patience for sugarcoating. With control over his arms and legs gone, even the simplest of daily tasks become humiliating and painful. Guest spares no detail in describing the challenges of hygiene and his sometimes-misanthropic encounters with the people around him.
A particularly memorable passage recounts Guest's return home upon his discharge from physical therapy. He is upset when his hometown turns out to greet him, a reaction he never wanted. "They shook their glittered signs at me," he writes, "Shouting 'praise Jesus' and 'amen' ... clapping and clapping like a congregation of fools and for the first time since breaking my neck, I thought, I want to die."
Late in the book, Guest devotes an entire chapter to his brief stint as a visiting professor of English at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. In it, he writes of the warmth and hospitality he experienced from friends and colleagues side-by-side with a tired stereotypical view of Alabama culture.
He tells of sweaty young missionaries handing out fire-and-brimstone leaflets on a corner of University Boulevard, and patronizingly describes Tuscaloosa as "the staging ground for the Rapture, lifting believers up into the air."
It's not impossible that Guest met some religious fundamentalists during his tenure here. But his implication that they lurked in every public space seems to be embellished by memory and a sense of telling a good story, facts be damned.
Through the book's pervasive gloom, however, shines some measure of hope. Guest refuses to relinquish his life to his paralysis. He learns to write using a pencil in his mouth. He becomes a respected poet and professor. He gets engaged. Life, for all its bitterness and cruel twists, continues.
One More Theory About Happiness is worth at least a glance, but is by no means light beach reading. Read it to be informed, not entertained. One is left with the opinion proffered by an ex-girlfriend, disgusted by one of Guest's dark poems: "I wish you would just write something happy. For once."
Brandon Hollingsworth is the host of Morning Edition on Alabama Public Radio.