Book review: ‘One More Theory About Happiness'

The day after his sixth-grade graduation, at a party in his hometown in northwest Georgia, Paul Guest borrowed a neglected, dusty 10-speed bicycle to ride down a hill.

When he realized the brakes didn’t work, he swerved and braced for a hard fall. Instead, he hit a ditch and hurtled over the bike’s handlebars “like a human lawn dart into the earth.” He knew when he landed that something was terribly wrong.

“My head felt like a stone and all that my mind could conjure for me to understand was that the rest of me seemed to float away.”

He had just broken his neck.

Guest spent the next five months at Atlanta’s Shepherd Spinal Center undergoing various tests and treatment. At first he, his parents, and his doctors nursed some hope -- when sensation returned, when he could move his legs, when immobilizing his neck and head in a torturous steel “halo” for eight weeks offered the possibility that the two fractured vertebrae might heal on their own.

Cut to reality: He would never walk again. Not “with a walker or crutches or other prosthetic devices, braces, splints, and dozens more, which would in time fill my closet and make of it a sad museum of hope.”

He returned home to Rossville to begin a new life as a wheelchair-bound boy before he’d even had his first kiss.

Guest, now 36 and an award-winning poet, offers a graceful and unflinching account of those days and what it was like to grow up paraplegic in his memoir, “One More Theory About Happiness.”

The book is not an easy read, nor is it a feel-good story that paints Guest’s injury as a blessing in disguise. By turns dispassionate, disgusted, furious, embarrassed, appalled and hopeful, the author lays bare his heartache at losing a world he had barely begun to experience as he sets a determined course toward independence.

It’s a remarkable journey that Guest, who possesses a dark sense of the absurd and an eye for the vulnerability of both the injured and the whole, presents in scenes that run the gamut from the horrific to the sublime:

-- The moment he regains sensation in his body, “like water on my chest, a dew on the skin above my sternum evaporating into the air ...  a tingling like I had come inside from a storm, soaked to the bone, beginning to dry.”

-- The uncle -- one of many well-meaning but insensitive adults -- who shows up at the hospital to present Guest with a brand new bicycle.

-- The live-action sex video shown to patients to illustrate “the crater impact our injuries would leave in our sex lives,” which by some unfathomable oversight the preteen Guest watched along with the adult group.

-- An assistant his mother hires to help him with school, who forces Paul to whisper “in her ear every letter of every word of every line of notes” he needs for class, because she can’t spell “N-O M-A-T-T-E-R H-O-W S-I-M-P-L-E” the word.

-- His first kiss, from a girl with a black eye, black nail polish and a waiting boyfriend in a lime green Ford Torino.

-- The irrepressible Romanian attendant who gleefully yells “Come to mama!” before scooping Guest up from his wheelchair to deposit him onto his bed “like a professional wrestler.”

In this ultimately optimistic book, Guest finds his way back to wholeness via poetry: “I couldn’t escape the notion that I was alone, in a broken body, stuck in the places between that body and everyone else, and that maybe each word and every line and all the poems I wrote were a tether, a rope by which I could hang on to the world, and not be left behind entirely, which I feared more than anything.”

The day he writes his first poem, he has “no doubt, none, that I had stumbled onto something essential about myself, who I was and who I might become, and all around me the future seemed to crackle like a storm.”

Guest, who now lives in Atlanta, is the recipient of a 2007 Whiting Writers' Award and the author of three collections of poetry: “The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World,” “Notes for My Body Double” and “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge.”

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