Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

bullshit suckThe Short Version: Nick Flynn never really knew his father Jonathan – had only met him once or twice – until he showed up at the Boston homeless shelter where Nick was working.  This is a biography of both men and the circumstances, somewhat, that led them to that shelter together.

The Review: Zoinks – that’s two stinkers in a row.  Sorry, I know I shouldn’t be saying anything too outright before my BookClub meets to discuss this book… but it was either that or a New York Times-worthy pun about “another bullshit book that sucks” or something along those lines.  I also thought such a pun would, admittedly, be a little harsh – it wasn’t that bad – and so, well, I opted for honesty.

Which this book is full of.  Honesty.  And I respect that.  I respect the hell out of Nick Flynn for writing a book that, were I in his shoes, I don’t know that I could write.  The relationship between a father and a son is one of the most complicated and multifaceted things in the world, right up there with wooing a woman and the mysteries of the cosmos.  There isn’t a man in the world who could say that he had a simple relationship with his father but Flynn makes a strong case that his is far more complicated than most.

But I’ll be damned in the book comes off as anything other than a young man trying to be brash and bold in expressing himself.  There’s something that felt self-serving about this book, a book that could’ve been something deeply and profoundly moving.  Perhaps it was all of the literary invention going on: scenes written in dramatic form, the bouncing around in time, the passages that are (by necessity) a little more fictionalized than others, even down to the chapter that is solely a list.  Yes, my dear long-time readers, you may recall another book that featured a chapter-length list and  you may recall how rhapsodically that book was received…..

Look, I’m all for narrative trickery and linguistic gymnastics.  The author is, apparently, a poet first and foremost so I’d almost’ve been disappointed if the book hadn’t featured some healthy disregard for traditional narrative structure.  But most of the time I just felt like Flynn was spitting out whatever he thought would seem interesting or cool in that particular moment, letting it go as long as it needed to, and then moving on to whatever was next.  A chapter towards the end was put in dramatic form and featured several men in Santa costumes and their daughters?  It had a tenuous link, at best, to the revelation that Nick’s dad was working as a street Santa – and it seemed much more like something he’d come up with while high, especially since we saw the recurrence of the Mayberry drunk as one of the five Santas.

Mostly, I was surprised at how much of this book isn’t at all about Nick’s relationship to his father – except perhaps in the absence thereof.  It’s about Nick, growing up and being stupid, and then meeting his father a third of the way through his life.  But the things that genuinely seem interesting are glossed over: according to Nick’s telling, he’s been around the world several times.  Yet I feel as though it’s mentioned off-hand.  Oh, he went here to see that girl he was on and off dating.  Oh, he was dug in with the Sandinistas.  The closest we get to an actual scene in another country is a brief anecdote about having been arrested in, I believe, Morocco and being worried about the chunk of opium sitting on his passport.  All of that sounds wildly interesting and yet there’s none of it here.  Instead, we get several repetitious scenes about the boat he was living on in Boston/Provincetown.  These scenes aren’t bad – living on a boat is an interesting and dynamic life choice to be sure – but after a while, there was such focus on the damn boat that I wanted to ask “um.  have we lost the thread?”

Indeed, I found myself asking that a lot.  I was simply never engaged by the book.  By its writing, by what it had to say, even by the structural derring-do.  It became a chore to pick up the book, never reading more than a handful of pages at any one go until forcing myself during a break yesterday to power through the last 150 pages.  As a result, I found myself skimming at best.  The book barely penetrated my mind – something even a modestly okay book will do now and then.  I could open it to any page and feel as though I was approximately as well-informed as I would be on any other page.  The father, a con man and ne’er do well.  The son, a drug-using layabout who eventually starts to turn his life around.  Hijinks ensue!

All of these critiques aside, Flynn does do one very important thing – a redemptive thing, in terms of my experience of the book – and that is to shine a harsh light on the homelessness problem in America.  His specific case study is Boston (the scene of several other high-profile works about homelessness as well) and that struck a chord with me, having spent four years in that city – a city that, for all its northeastern progressive liberal-mindedness, is still stuck deep in the past when it comes to race and class.  A scene where Nick goes to rent a room in the North End and the landlord tells him “no blacks can visit” was almost comical until you realize that that’s still sometimes how it goes in Boston.  His descriptions of the homeless shelter are simple and unadorned enough that they have a sobering and saddening effect: that is the way the other half lives and there’s so little being done about it.  The best we can do is rely on people like Nick who selflessly volunteer even a little of their time to help.

Rating: 2 out of 5.  I can’t truly dislike the book, no matter how hard I try, because is presents a clear and present social problem in terms no one can avoid.  Homelessness and poverty run rampant through this country and there’s little being done about it – reading even segments of this book should be enough to convince you that more needs doing.  But the book itself is such a puffed-up attempt to be meaningful that it’s often in danger of undercutting that societal message.  The self-importance reminded me of another perhaps-poorly-chosen-title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  The two books are kindred spirits.  I don’t think I really have to say anything else.

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