Monday, February 16, 2009

Reponse to “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” by Nick Flynn

While writing about his deeply personal experience, Nick Flynn focused a sharp light on one of our society’s failings in “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”. He peppered his book with short vignettes of the lives of the downtrodden, which helped to illuminate, at least for this reader, the impact of our cultural neglect and/or misunderstanding of both the causes and consequences homelessness. He showed us in great detail the potential harm that can come from addiction, mental illness, poverty, or generational/parental incompetence, especially when they overlap as they often do.

Through honest reflection Nick Flynn allowed us to accompany him on his transformative journey. Throughout the book he maintained respect for human dignity, even when the characters’ own self-dignity appeared to have vaporized. The book included humor, which was difficult given the intensity and sadness of much of the material, and irony. In addition, there were some very tender scenes, which really gave the book its heart.

The book has a nice balance of lyric and narrative style. There was an eloquence of language throughout the prose, but there was one chapter in particular that stood out: “Same Again” p 221 was quite powerful. This is one I would use (with permission, of course) in my teaching about addiction for my family medicine trainees. But I was also drawn to find out what happened next to Nick and his father, as well as to see where their new and tenderhearted relationship would take them. For me, it was this narrative arc and the narrow narrative distance - the intimacy with which he dealt with his subject matter - that was most compelling. In many cases it felt as if he were writing, and we were observing, life’s very moments as he lived them. An example was the moment he videotaped his finger as he pushed the bell that would ring up in his father’s Section 8 apartment.

Each chapter stood, if not alone, on its own merit. There was much ‘experimentation’ with chapter styles, which I enjoyed, especially the italicized comments that popped into the prose, most of which were quotes from his father. I was less interested with the chapters done in play format; these left me a bit confused and didn’t add much to my understanding of plot or the characters.

The overarching metaphor of the lifeboat was woven into the stories in various ways beginning with his grandfather’s legacy of having invented one. In addition, Nick lived in isolation on a boat for many of his difficult years. There were many variations on saving one another in the book, for example: Jonathan thought his book would save him, Nick and his buddies worked to save the hopeless and sometime helpless men in and out of the shelter, and finally, and perhaps the theme of the book - would/could Nick be a lifeboat for his father?

The most interesting part of the book for me was that Nick and his father seemed to be living parallel lives. Each struggled with the push and pull, away from / then towards one another, (mostly push). Each struggled with relationships, addiction, and the love and loss of Jody. Both spiraled down. In fact, part of the appeal of the book was to find out how low they might go, and whether or not they could, or would, be able to climb back out.

I loved the final chapter; it captured this character, his father, very well. This was something Nick had to piece together and build for himself year after year (and for us chapter by chapter) - his father was at once grandiose, narcissistic, funny, addicted, demented, irritating, unpredictable, and … incredible. And, thanks to the clarity and honesty of his writing, credible.

Ultimately, it seems, Nick accepted who his parents were, and weren’t. What his life was, and wasn’t. This, along with some formal- and self-education and recovery from addiction, allowed him to transform his life into one he could, and would, enjoy living.


  1. I like that Flynn waits until the end--the video camera portion of the book--to show us who his father really is, an actor. A carefully constructed house of cards. We don't really see this until Flynn does.

    I also enjoyed (appreciated?) that Flynn's book serves as both a personal narrative about fathers and sons and a reflection on homelessness in America.

    Though I think that his decision to work at Pine Street was more intentional than he makes it sound. He makes it sound like he simply wandered into the job and was too shiftless/lazy to leave. One doesn't wander into this work. One wanders into working at Starbucks. I wish he would have acknowledged this.

  2. i guess i wouldn't have characterized Jonathon as a "carefully constructed house of cards", as interesting as that phrase may be, or "an actor". To me, it appears Jonathon has mental illness in addition to his drinking problem...(whether Nick Flynn wants to label it as such or not). So, i don't think there's a whole lot of room for "careful construction" there. maybe it's more like desperate confabulation.

  3. Nick actually does describe his father as a carefully constructed house of cards. That if one card were to be removed, he would crumble.

  4. My working theory is that Jonathan has borderline personality disorder... He has such a lack of empathy and sees the world in such blacks and whites.

  5. i misunderstood your comment, i agree jonathon is like a house of cards... just don't think he (jonathon) is the one who has carefully constructed it.

  6. Wow Janice, this is a great response to the book. You pretty much covered everything. It was a complete and total spiral as Nick floats in and out of school, on and off of drugs, and in and out of the homeless shelter...but he wraps in up nicely in the end.

    Oh, I agree that some chapters were very distracting to the rest of the story...


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