September 2010

Beth Harrington

nonfiction

One More Theory about Happiness: A Memoir by Paul Guest

Belying its pop psychology title, One More Theory about Happiness is not a self-help book promising to reveal the latest scientific research about how to improve one’s mood, or a celebrity tell-all of finding oneself via spiritual rebirth in India coupled with daily yoga. Instead, Paul Guest’s memoir is an account of his life using a wheelchair after a bicycle accident at age twelve left him mostly paralyzed from the neck down. Even in its earliest pages, the memoir proves to be not for the faint of heart. Of his first moments after the accident Guest writes: “My breath was labored. Something wet seeped from my nose. It felt like blood. I’d later learn it was spinal fluid.” Paul is whisked away to the emergency room where doctors confirm the worst. From there, he spends months in the hospital and a rehabilitation center trying to salvage what little use he can from his damaged body. Revoked is every implicit guarantee that comes with inhabiting a human self, from the power of movement, to the dignity of privacy and being able to accomplish the most basic tasks of daily living without assistance, to the promise of having a normal adult future.

Yet more powerful than his graphic descriptions of physical devastation is the language he uses to depict the faintest realization of his indefatigable hope. “The first upwell of sensation, like water evaporating from the skin of my sternum, had begun to spread, down my chest and across to my shoulders. It was easy to miss at first, the way a room at sunrise slowly begins to swell with light.” It is hard to find a more resounding yet simply-rendered appreciation of the human miracle of touch and sensation in literature.

The book becomes somewhat patchy, reading more like a series of anecdotes strung together from memory, once Paul is discharged from rehabilitation and returned to the familiar settings of home and school, under completely altered circumstances. Paul rides the handicapped bus to school with an assortment of other mentally and physically disabled kids, and struggles through class assignments with aides -- who tend to do more harm than good -- and experiences awkward, adolescent crushes complicated by his wheelchair confinement. He then proceeds onto college and graduate school where he explores his passion for writing poetry, which he first discovered in high school.

One More Theory about Happiness is a surprisingly quick read that never becomes overwhelmed by the gravity of its subject matter. The dedicated reader could finish it in one sitting. Guest’s prose is carefully weighted with thoughtful optimism that never rings false and evokes the steamy, hazy aura of the South where he lives through the majority of the book. Throughout the memoir, Guest is attuned to how his disabled status affects those around him, whether it is the paraprofessional at his high school who develops a crush on him, to the man who mugs him on an elevator in his freshman year of college only to hold the doors open for him when he emerges from it. At its conclusion, Paul has found hope anew in the form of his fiancée, June, met through chance in a hotel after a writer’s conference. Though he never quite reveals what his "theory about happiness" is, the real meaning to be invoked from his title is that if happiness can be achieved by someone who must endure such a traumatic, permanent handicap, it is never truly out of grasp for the rest of us.

One More Theory about Happiness: A Memoir by Paul Guest
Ecco
ISBN: 0061685178
208 Pages