I read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City for class, and I’m glad: glad I read it, and glad I had a class to guide me through it. I think I got more out of it this way. It would have been a little opaque to me on my own.
Nick Flynn’s father Jonathan was mostly absent in his son’s youth, although sort of a towering absence. Nick met the father he scarcely knew when Nick was working at a homeless shelter in Boston, where Jonathan became a client. This is Nick’s memoir of his father’s troubled, mysterious life and ugly effects on those around him – his wives and children – and Nick’s search for answers. (If this sounds familiar to you, you may have seen the movie made from this story, Being Flynn, which starred Robert De Niro but didn’t do terribly well.)
As illuminated by my professor, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City pulls heavily from the themes and style of absurdist theatre and theatre generally. Nearly every chapter involves some form of stage setting, awareness of audience, or other element of performance. King Lear and Beckett’s Endgame are particularly present. I know almost nothing about absurdist theatre, and would certainly have missed this subtext without help; and it really did help me to see some of what Flynn was up to.
It is an unusually, but very carefully composed book. Chapters vary in format. Some are written as short plays; some take different hermit crab forms. One of my favorites is a list of “thirteen random facts.” An illustration or two and one very important diagram come in. Despite the differences in form, there is a fairly straightforward narrative at work: the life of a father as seen (therefore, in pieces) by his son, and the life of the son, at first as it applies to the father’s story but in bursts beyond as well. This narrative is not strictly chronological, but any disjoints in its telling only reflect the way it was lived, the way information about Jonathan came to Nick, in dribs and drabs and jolts.
Readers new to the varied forms Flynn uses may find them a little distracting, but I don’t think they’ll pose a real challenge. The scrapbook-feel echoes the subject matter, echoes real life. And despite looking at a glance like it was thrown together – indeed, like real life – there is extraordinary artistry and intention at play here. Look for recurrent images throughout, like the donut, and the life raft, which sometimes takes the donut-echoing shape of a lifesaver. Look for theatricality, framed stages, costumes and sets. And the question of caring about appearances, or designing appearances.
Obviously, Nick Flynn tells painful and personal stories in this book, raising some of the classic questions of the memoir genre: how much to share, how much is too much, and what reader response is appropriate. Flynn struggles with these questions, especially in the final section called “aftermath (one year later): questions often asked, and some possible answers.” I was reminded of a Bernard Cooper essay I read – I forget its title, but it was in The Business of Memory, a collection edited by Charles Baxter. It dealt with Cooper’s surprise at reader reactions, and his inability to control what those readers take away from his work, and what they are curious about. It might seem like some of these issues are obvious ones, but there’s no accounting for people, always and in all directions, and the possibilities fascinate me.
I found this a brave, complex and moving book, and I recommend it. For a little taste, here is the obituary written for Jonathan Flynn, nearly ten years after the book’s publication. As Brevity notes, it is unattributed but presumably written by Nick.
I look forward to finding time for a reread, for further study.