Though Chip Kidd is best known as a "graphic designer" for book covers (as opposed to "commercial artist," a distinction he makes in the book), his talent as a writer could propel him into a whole new field--and this book into cult icon status. With a clarity of vision perhaps brought on by hindsight, he lays bare the emotional and intellectual confusion of a naïve, first year art student at a state university, a character who must find himself in an atmosphere which requires him to evaluate all the ideas and values he's uncritically absorbed to date. The character, who feels autobiographical, is lively, funny, and, I thought, totally believable, and I suspect that any reader who has ever taken an art course will empathize, if not identify, with him in some way.
As the speaker lives through this "novel in two semesters," he is profoundly affected by an off-the-wall female upperclassman, Himillsy Dodd, a free-spirited, hard-drinking woman of strong opinions, willing to challenge everyone and everything. Opposing hypocrisy wherever she finds it (virtually everywhere), Himillsy serves as a quirky mentor during the speaker's first two art classes, the second of which is with Winter Sorbeck, a never-to-be-forgotten instructor who turns his students' thinking inside-out, viciously critiquing not only of their work but also their personalities. As "Happy" deals with Sorbeck, Himillsy, the usual freshman tensions, fraternity parties, exams, critiques, and all-nighters, the reader shares his anxieties and feels his growth.
The amusing cover of the book resembles a doodled-on freshman text, with a magic marker message written on the binding and side of the closed book, bleeding into the pages themselves. The title, taken from one of Himillsy's sculptures, is as goofy as she is, though its meaning becomes clearer as the book progresses. The ending is a letdown, however, and it feels as if the book got away from the author, who then had to take extreme action to resolve his subplots and themes. Still, it is an auspicious debut, special fun for anyone interested in art. Mary Whipple