- Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
In his compelling and beautiful memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn recalls a riddle that troubled him as a child: "Brothers and sisters I have none / But that man's father is my father's son." Flynn writes of the memory, "After a year I decided that the guy was looking into a mirror, just to put it out of my mind. Years later I realized I was wrong." These are the questions Flynn grapples with in his memoir: who is that man, who is my father, who am I. The book is structured as a collection of short chapters that are like prose poems and that serve as puzzle pieces, each offering a fragment of a whole. This may be the only way for Flynn to understand his father, Jonathan, who left his mother shortly after Flynn's birth, and reappeared years later in Boston as a homeless alcoholic seeking services in the shelter where Flynn worked after dropping out of college. "All my life my father has been manifest as an absence, a nonpresence, a name without a body," Flynn writes.
Flynn has published two highly praised poetry collections (Blind Huber and Some Ether), and he brings the poet's "tell it slant" sensibility to his memoir, which is less a linear narrative than an assemblage of vignettes. The chapters are brief, some only a paragraph and none more than a few pages. Each chapter is titled as a stand-alone piece: "pear" or "cloverleaf" or "crowbar" or "love saves the day," for example. Some are bits of theater, invented dialogue, or "facts," as in the chapter titled "thirteen random facts." [End Page 105]
One chapter, called "—same again," echoes Scott Russell Sander's essay on his father, "Under the Influence," which offers a lexicon of drinking. Flynn's list reads as a breathless intoxicating rush—a marriage of form and content: "Lush. Drink like a fish. Boozer. Booze hound. Absorb. Rummy. Alkie. Sponge. Sip. Sot. Sop. Then muddled. Then maudlin. Then woozy. Then clouded." The list rambles on for nearly four pages.
Filling the blank spaces between known facts and lore, Flynn uses imagination to conjure, and sometimes converse, with his father. A fantasized scene figures a young man exiting a nightclub at closing, addressing a street bum:
You seem like a regular guy, how'd you end up here?
Where? my father asks.
Imagined scenes become a way for Flynn to examine and mitigate his emotions toward his father:
If I could distill those years into a television game show I'd call it The Apologist. Today's show: "Fathers Left Outside to Rot." And there I'd sit in an ill-fitting suit, one of three or four contestants, looking contrite or defiant, or inscrutable under the life-draining lights . . . Before we go to a commercial break a caption will appear under my face—He wished his father dead.
The game show analogy distances Flynn, and the reader, from the powerful, perhaps verboten primal urges of a child, to wish a parent dead. For all the emotional remove, the passage is strangely affecting with its horrific but poignant confession. Flynn strikes this detached but blunt tone throughout the book; his honesty sans sentimentality invites empathy from the reader.
More than the archetypical desire for his father's death, Flynn wants to know him, or at the least to trust what he knows about his father, to get at some truth of his and his father's lives. As evidence, Flynn submits excerpts of letters from his father, who began to write to Flynn (sometimes from prison) when Flynn was a teenager, as well as stories his mother has told him, or his relatives, or his father's friends. By the end of the book, shards coalesce into a portrait, into a tragic tale: His father, Jonathan, the dreamer, the con-man, the shiftless alcoholic; his mother, Jody, the pretty, naive teenager who finds herself pregnant, the hasty marriage that quickly falls apart. Flynn intertwines his parents...