washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Book Report

Fill in the Blanks

By Michael Mewshaw,
author of the memoir
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page C04


A Memoir

_____Arts & Living_____
The Books section has reviews as well as area literary events.
The Washington Post Book Club gives access to discounts, discussions and special events.

By Nick Flynn

Norton. 347 pp. $23.95

There's a fearful and sometimes forced symmetry to this memoir, one that the author repeats like the refrain of a ballad. Nick Flynn's father was an alcoholic, convicted felon and delusional mythomaniac who justified every selfish excess on artistic grounds: "The one role he held on to was that of being a great undiscovered writer." Feeling doomed to follow in Dad's footsteps, Nick feared he "would become him, the line between us would blur, my own slow-motion car wreck would speed up." So for decades he steered clear. Then as if to find a setting that matched his bleak inner landscape, he started working in a homeless shelter where his father eventually sought refuge. Like a Graham Greene character fleeing God, yet bumping into him at every turn, Nick could never outdistance this sad, shabby figure.

Although in synopsis the story may sound depressing, the prose swirls in graceful arcs that frequently rise to the level of poetry, leavened by mordant humor: "Here is a man, shaped like a blanket, shaped like a box, shaped like a bench. Easy to miss. If this is my father, if I leave a sandwich beside his sleeping body, does this become a family meal? Is this bench now our dinner table? Are we inside again? Is this what it means to be holding it together? Am I coping? How's my driving?"

Flynn's mother tended bar and worked in a bank, where she spotted her ex-husband's picture on a wanted poster. A drinker herself, she had a succession of boyfriends -- "father figurines," Flynn calls them -- including a wigged-out Vietnam vet who confided his war crimes to the family dog. Eventually a drug dealer introduced her to cocaine and got her to use her bank job to launder money.

She urged Nick, age 8, to shoplift. By 12 he was drinking and turned in a school report about spending a weekend skiing in "Vermouth." By 14 he was smoking joints with his stepfather, who took him Christmas tree-stealing. By his late teens, he was licking up his mother's coke residue and wrecking cars; he lost his spleen in a motorcycle accident. When his mother asked what he planned to do with his life, he answered, "Crime." Noticing her disappointment, he added, "White-collar, victimless." After his mother committed suicide, he unraveled. Drinking, doing drugs, living aboard a boat and in a former strip club in Boston's Combat Zone, he seemed as broken as the men at the homeless shelter, and it's difficult to imagine how he dealt with their problems. In the end, it appears miraculous that he saved himself when a girlfriend delivered an ultimatum: Get therapy or lose her.

If "Another [BS] Night in Suck City" were a novel, one might observe that the resolution feels rushed and the story sprawls a bit, but in the end it's a powerful tale, stylishly told. As a memoir, however, the book prompts unease. Although no autobiography can be accurate in every minute detail and Flynn, an accomplished poet, deserves his license, there's an implicit truth pact with the reader that can't be squared with the holes in this narrative. Part of the problem may be structural. Far from straightforward, the book jumps around in time and space, presenting elliptical takes on incidents from different points of view. For pages at a stretch, the alcohol-fueled stream-of-consciousness of Flynn's father controls the text. Then there are pastiches of comic routines, Q&A interviews and a sophomoric 10-page play about Salvation Army Santas. Even if one grants the author his caprices and his access to someone else's mind, there remains a troubling sense of blurred genres and implausible scenes.

Better editing would have helped. At least that way there wouldn't be the jarring contradiction of hearing that Flynn had "forgotten to apply" to college only to learn a few pages later that he won a full scholarship to the University of Massachusetts. One's bafflement deepens as Flynn admits that he was in the top 10 percent of his high school class. This doesn't fit the dead-end childhood he described, and since he recounts endless lowlife escapades and nothing about his academic excellence, one is shocked again when he does well at college. What happened to the screwed-up druggie who claims he came home on weekends and holidays to work for "gangsters"? Later, after what sounds like many a season in hell at the homeless shelter, when Flynn announces that he's off to grad school, it seems that some vital transition must have been deleted. Given his harrowing anecdotes about smoking crack, dropping acid and systematically deranging his senses, who would guess he had the gray matter to fill out an application, scrounge up recommendations and submit writing samples?

Of course an alternative scenario of Flynn's life looms as a tantalizing possibility. Maybe despite the dysfunctions of his family, he was always less a hell-raiser than an overachiever, more a bookworm than a bar eater. After all, although he spent seven summers living aboard a boat, he didn't sail to South America to smuggle drugs as he earlier claimed he wanted to do. He dropped anchor at Provincetown, and although he worked a "garbage job" at a restaurant, it's reasonable to surmise that he also spent time with the town's large writing community.

There's nothing wrong with this. It's just that after his scorching candor about his parents, Flynn's economy with the facts of his own life risks undermining the credibility of his memoir and undercutting his considerable achievement. In his eagerness to stress his similarity to his father, he suggests that until 30 he was a burnout case, lost to booze and bad choices; uncomfortable with the role of Horatio Alger, he comes on as Arthur Rimbaud. But this ignores a truth that Flynn, now a creative-writing teacher, probably imparts to his students. Literary careers require more than talent. They require focus, industriousness, persistence, ambition and a little help from well-placed friends. Nick Flynn, it would appear, had all this.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company