Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night In Suck City

For the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing a series of books having little at all to do with one another, except that they fit within the non-fiction genre. The first one, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, will be referred to hereafter as ABNISC. First, I don’t like the title (I’m not intimidated at all by gutter language and provocative titling), but more on that in a moment.
Memoirs are a popular sub-genre these days. We’re fascinated with celebrity—so much so, in fact, that after the most famous personages are exhausted, we seek out more in the rank and file—teachers, writers, then finally—people on the skids. That’s where ABNISC fits in. Author Nick Flynn’s life begins and persists in the worst of circumstances—only partially outside his means to do something about. His father is a drunk who becomes a street person. His suicidal mother compensates through drugs and a series of “uncles” for Nick and his brother, who periodically wage war on one another. Each of these family members is clearly too intelligent to be embroiled in such circumstances—but they are. This seems to be the essence of Flynn’s story.
One expects Nick to be repelled by such circumstances, but he isn’t. He embraces it, using and selling drugs and working for gangsters. As his life wears on (as does this reader’s patience), he happens on his father, who, amid drunkenness and various incarcerations, fancies himself a writer. Nick strikes a father-hating pose, but he is clearly enthralled with his father and his frequent appearances and disappearances. At the same time, Nick alludes to an awe of his mother akin to that of a saint, which can only be a manifestation of poorly developed and expressed guilt on Nick’s part.
The life this family leads separately and apart, is characteristic of the underbelly of modernity. By that I mean, they find no solace in their circumstance, nor with any prospective future, nor with one another, the only thing setting them apart from the rest of society being the extent of their angst and addiction.
Nick manages to obtain a liberal arts education, but one wonders at the strength of his educational process, given his seeming ambivalent attitude toward it. One gets no feel for why he blames himself for his mother’s suicide, nor for why he hates his father so. Or would he have to resort to cliché were he to do so? The reader can only surmise answers here, in the end guessing that the personalities involved are as superficial as a life of easy money, easy sex, and drugs would be.
One expects a memoir to reveal character by unearthing failings as a way of healing them. But Nick plays his cards too close to his vest for that—it’s as if by revealing his emotional makeup he would be revealing both an innate shallowness and a consequent ambivalence to face it and do something about it.
That ABNISC has won the Pen/Albrand Award for Memoir and has become a top selling piece of the genre speaks as strongly about our society as about the author. In my humble opinion, his avid readers are social voyeurs, scraping the skin of bottom feeders for something to make them feel better about themselves. I suspect the book’s marketers knew this and chose the title to attract those who seek to strike an existential posture in defense of unsatisfying lives, the choices they, like Nick, have made.
Still Flynn is a competent writer. He manages to compose enthralling sentences on occasion, but only when they don’t seem to matter to the story. And he tells his life story in a literary jumble of tense, experiments in poetic pose, stories, rants, and reflections that often work cohesively. This memoir’s overall effect, however, seems to be that of Flynn’s life, dodging hard choices and eluding the consequent fallout through a smokescreen of promise that ultimately fails to live up to its ongoing hype.

Selected Shorts V

Haven’t done one of these in a long time. I’m doing it now primarily to solicit comments on the new blog(s) format. Tell me what you think, especially if the new name resonates.
School starts again next week – my last one of coursework – then the masters project. And as you may have guessed, the Masters project has to do with WWII, the conflict between Germany and Russia. My research is complete, and I’m on a final draft of the chapter outline. I haven’t been doing chapter outlines lately, but I felt it was necessary on this one. It’s a historical novel, and there is much detail involved I could be called to task to explain. The outline helps keep things accurate time-wise, as well as helping to keep a balance between the history and the story.
Doing the research has been extremely gratifying. Not only have I learned a great deal about an aspect of WWII that’s gotten very little ink, but the people I’ve met – mostly ex-military – have been very gracious to me and most helpful in pointing me in the right directions and sharing information and insights. More on that as it develops.
I’m reading a book of essays you should know about: The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell. The author has as great an interest in politics as I, and she manages to see that world through a whimsical, humorous lens. A lesson to be learned from my end – I take this stuff so blasted seriously. Perhaps a more complete look at the book next week. Okay…I promise.

Retrospective

No post last week: I drove a pick-up load of my mother-in-law’s memorabilia to Texas, and into my wife’s sister’s keeping. The last parceling of a deceased one’s possessions. Along the way, I visited a cousin recovering from prostate cancer, he dealing with his own mother’s last days, a swell as fractious siblings. On the way back, I had breakfast with an old friend, one I’ve known since the crib, one suffering his own case of prostate and colon cancer.
My wife had driven to Texas with me, but I left her in her sister’s keeping, needing to tend to home responsibilities in these mountains. Life has been something of a retrospective for me these past years, attending high school and college reunions, gathering on occasion with profession colleagues, unable to avoid my old friends’ aging, some below the sod now, as my Texas friend puts it. So on the solitary but frenetic, thousand-mile drive back to North Carolina, I managed to relive the first journey east of my adulthood, some forty years before.
The interstate was a gleaming stripe of concrete back then, curled about the South’s rolling terrain. We drove politely, if not sedately, enjoying the views as they swept by. Eighteen-wheelers were still a rarity, a far cry from being a constant semi sandwich today. Such travel now is an ordeal, a feisty jockeying for road space with younger, far more intense drivers, whipping about in far bigger and faster vehicles.
Strange now to see life as in my rear view mirror. Back then, as the cliché might be paraphrased, the world lay as wide and open before me as the new Interstates. While in Louisiana on this trip, a bridge in Minnesota collapsed, its service life drawing to a close, even before daily traffic volume doubled and the truck weights on it climbed into the stratosphere, before heavy equipment and a hundred tons of sand were laded onto its concrete deck to accomplish maintenance work on the creaking and wrinkled bridge.
I feel overloaded and overused in the same way these days. But the human experience is and always has been one of such excess. It’s remarkable that we survive as long as we do. Mortality grins back from the bathroom mirror in early morning. It’s good, perhaps, that my eyes aren’t as discerning as they used to be – otherwise I might crash onto my bathroom tiles as spectacularly as the Minnesota bridge.
But retrospectives aren’t for the garrison-minded, looking forever to ward off what will surely happen. Instead, its purpose is to take a deep breath and glance sideways, perhaps from above, to make sense of life’s odd strings of experiences, the failures that remain to haunt us, the successes we seem to take for granted.
That’s what this trip did for me, I think. It allowed me to bring such a messy life into perspective so I can go on, sure of the past, so I might feel equally sure of the remaining future before my own finite service life leaves me below the sod.