As someone who has a home (albeit a very cramped, poorly functioning one), it’s easy to look at homelessness as a binary fact: you’re either living on the streets or you’re not. After reading Nick Flynn’s award-winning and brilliantly titled memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City*, I learned that actually there is a great deal of fluidity within the homeless community. The scene within a shelter is continually in flux based on weather, familial support, occupation, pride, etc. While this seems self-evident, I do think our tendency to simplify and condense is so ingrained in us that we often look at a person in a shelter and immediately categorize them as dispossessed, even if that might just be a short-term situation.
The book is about a social worker who is reunited with his homeless father after years of estrangement. Nick was raised by a single mother while his absentee father wandered about Boston, occasionally sending his children eccentric letters that detailed some elaborate heist or shenanigan. Despite Nick’s understandable revulsion towards the man, he finds himself following in the adrift footsteps of his paternal legacy. They are both aspiring writers who cannot find a foothold in that industry. Their lives are shaped by drugs and alcohol; every activity is laced with the urge to suppress. From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that Nick and his father are on parallel tracks. Subjectively, Nick is disturbed by the notion that he’s destined to fall short of societal and self-expectations. He wonders if failure is part of his lineage—if indignity is in his blood. Once he enters his early twenties, Nick starts working at a shelter, so ironically, the homeless pay his rent. He vaguely knows that his dad lives on the streets; clearly, although he is disgusted by his father, he is also in some ways deeply drawn to him. His choice to remain within a scene in which his dad could pop up at any moment, like a “drunken jack in the box”, opens up Pandora’s psychological box (Flynn, 225). There is fear and unease associated with the possible confrontation of his demons. Is he concerned for his father’s well being? Does he need closure for his years of fatherlessness? Is he simply curious about the madman being the letters? Does he have a desire to affirm the differences between him and his father—a way to negate the similarities by pinpointing and refining what they are exactly? In some ways, his dad is a compass that allows Nick to weave in and out of these questions, sentiments, and self-reflections. A compass with the magnets all screwed up if you will.
Sure enough, his dad eventually shows up as a patron of the shelter. Nick reveals, “some part of me knew he would show up, that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you’re taught to do when you’re lost. But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting” (Flynn, 24). With this new development, there is some unsettling role reversal—he’s taking care of his dad even though his dad never took care of him. They’re “living together” in adulthood rather than childhood. What an odd and disorienting experience—and keep in mind that this is a memoir, this twilight-zoney business actually happened. Nick ponders the implications of their new relationship. He sees a homeless guy on a bench and wonders, “If this is my father, if I leave a sandwich beside his sleeping body, does that become a family meal? Is this bench now our dinner table?” (Flynn, 248).
So, the storyline of this book is exceptional, but is it expressed well? Nick Flynn is primarily a poet and this profession certainly suffuses through his tragically beautiful memoir. It is definitely a heavy read, but it’s something that feels somehow necessary—both for him to put his feelings into words and for me to read and attempt to empathize. It is a brutally honest disclosure of his search for an essential self. He is an introspective guy who is profoundly shaped by his experiences of fatherlessness and unique re-fathering. Some teachers advise writers to “show, not tell”—Nick Flynn shows and tells. I would LOVE to hear him do a reading because I imagine his words would sound poignantly lyrical aloud.
Even though the memoir’s tone is generally somber, Nick is cynically funny throughout. After a particularly heart-wrenching family event, someone asked him how he was doing. Nick mockingly remarks, “He might as well ask, “Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?” (Flynn, 156). Lawlz. His dark humor and creativity augment rather than detracts from his message. He punctuates his story with imaginative analogies or poetic sidetracks and it effectively tugs at the heartstrings. For instance, he spends one chapter (four pages) just listing different words/phrases that mean “drunk”. Additionally, oftentimes he quotes his father or describes an episode within his father’s life. While Nick did investigate his father’s factual history to some degree, these depictions are mostly retrospective superimpositions by Nick—they are expressions of what he imagines his father's thoughts were and what his destitute situation must have felt like. It is a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and that is where his talent really shines through.
A sign of a good book is when certain passages haunt you for months, even years to come. I read this memoir a few months ago for a book club with my friends you’ve encountered in the past—Matt and Will—and I’m only just now humpday-hardbacking it! I was reluctant for so long because I felt that my review wouldn’t do it justice—it’s such an intense story with ties to an endemic socioeconomic issue. One chapter that has spoken to me since I put down the book is titled “Ham”. It consists of an intricately well thought out analogy to the biblical Noah. It is a remarkably applicable comparison of fathers with grandiose ideas and sons grappling with the hopelessness of an inevitable inheritance and poor predestination. Like father, like son. That’s not great when your dad is a homeless, penniless, loveless, drunkard. Luckily, my dad is a loving, good-souled hunter with an impressive beard and a passion for dachshunds. Hopefully, I'll end up looking something like this:
During his upbringing, both Nick and his father loosely held on to the idea that writing is a noble profession that justifies and maybe even necessitates struggle. After all, “to be a poet digging ditches is very different from being a mere ditch digger” (Flynn, 15). They inwardly thought that maybe homelessness isn’t so bad because it’s an *experience*-- it contributes to an interesting personage and provides material to write about. Being a struggling writer doesn’t mean you’re not talented… you’re just *undiscovered*. Finally, with this memoir, Nick Flynn is discovered. He’s redeemed. And this is a very aggressively beautiful transformation to witness. All in all, I give Another Bullshit Night in Suck City 5 out of 5 camel humps. Read it and perhaps you’ll have enough good luck to not encounter shit on your commute.
*Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. Print.