Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

by Jess

Finally, another book to add to my Books I Liked list. They’ve been few and far between in the past few months.

Another Bullshit Night is a memoir concerning Flynn’s relationship with his father, Jonathan, which was essentially nonexistent for the first 20 or so years of his life. During this time, his father, a longtime alcoholic who claimed to be a writer but who never seemed to be able to produce a written work, became homeless. Despite their emotional distance, Nick and Jonathan lived strikingly parallel lives. Nick decided he wanted to be a writer, long before he ever knew of his father’s aspirations; he worked with a shelter for homeless men; and he too was headed down the road of substance abuse. He writes, in a section titled Apologist,

Sometimes I’d see my father, walking past my building on his way to another nowhere. I could have given him a key, offered a piece of my floor. A futon. A bed. But I never did. If I let him inside I would become him, the line between us would blur, my own slow-motion car wreck would speed up. The slogan on the side of a moving company van read Together We Are Going Places — modified by a vandal or a disgruntled employee to read Together We Are Going Down. If I went to the drowning man the drowning man would pull me under. I couldn’t be his life raft.

This is a memoir stripped of sentimentality, as I think all good memoirs should be. It tells a terrific, sometimes heartbreaking, story in the simplest possible way, but the emotions sort of float in the white space between the letters. Mark Doty’s blurb on the book notes that Flynn “approaches each character in this ferocious, inventive memoir with an almost radical sense of compassion, as if all that any of us could do were to stumble ahead with the burdens we’re given. The result is a book so singular, harrowing, and loving as to be indelible.”

I don’t understand when people say they don’t like memoirs; a memoir’s a book just like any other. Some are good and some are rubbish. This one is excellent. Flynn employs some really interesting devices in the course of the book, like chopping up the narrative into small sections, each with a heading, almost as though he needs to think in short bursts in order to process his thoughts and navigate the deep waters of his story. He intersperses sections about his life with those about his father or mother, or the homeless life in general.

One particularly striking section about being homeless is called Cloverleaf. His father, working as a cabbie at the time and living out of his taxi, one night in late March “forgets to stop drinking — meter on, meter off, blackout, awake. Another overnight in jail, to stand before the judge in the morning. The police said they found an empty fifth beside me. Said I hit someone or some fucking thing down by the Common. What could I say to that?” He goes on to describe the places for a homeless man to hole up on a cold night: the library until 9 pm, Dunkin’ Donuts until 11. A bench in Trinity Park or the bus stop are too risky: he’ll be robbed of what little he has by a crackhead while he sleeps. Then he spots the grates behind the library, hot air steaming up from underground. Flynn writes:

When it snows the snow will not stick to the grate — a dark, wet spot in a whiteout. The drunks fall there, driven by cops, by clubs, by the cold. Some inner radar keeps them alive, they stagger through the storm, blind drunk and goofy until they find the steam and then they fall. Like coming upon an oasis in the desert, their bodies melt into the grates, the steam seeps into their coats, into their pores. It’s another prison, these blowers, because once you’ve landed you cannot leave, not if there is nowhere to go, not without a destination, because one step off the blower is cold, hypothermia cold, now that you are sodden. Blankets rise off your body in the fan’s heat, hang above your sleep like a dream before sailing off into the slush. Cold nights the guys crowd on, and if you arrive last, if you are on the edge, you could die, roll over a few inches and you’re a goner. The blower is a room of heat with no walls. My father stands in this room, invisible man in an invisible room in the invisible city. He sits beside the fallen man, steam rising, warming them.

I realize I’m painting a rather bleak picture of the book, but it’s not a story about desolation and hopelessness. Nick and his father restore their relationship, Nick is able to pull himself up out of the tailspin his life is in, Jonathan actually produces some writing, and as of the writing of the book, his father had been in Section 8 housing for twelve years. This sort of triumph makes this book an important one for anyone — regardless of whether you can “relate” to Nick or his father (although, let’s be honest, we’ve all experienced relationship troubles with our parents). In an interview with Emily Stokes, Flynn describes the purpose of reading a memoir like this:

When I ask whether sharing these personal details of his life and that of his family makes him feel uncomfortable, he says that this is the point. “If I don’t reach a low, then I don’t think I’ve pushed deep enough into this realm, which is what part of the job description is for an artist,” he explains. He wants his writing to be transparent, so that “people can look through it and see their own lives”. He believes that the impulse behind people’s desire to read true, personal stories is positive — a kind of “democratisation”. When I ask whether his book is “misery lit” he looks at me blankly.

I think I would have looked at her blankly as well. I don’t know what misery lit is, but I have a feeling it’s sort of a misnomer. Misery is a part of life. All literature should have at least a sprinkling of misery in it. That’s what makes it ring true.

This is an excellent book, and if you hurry and read it now, you’ll be ready for the film adaptation starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. It oughta be a good one.

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