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Book Reviews, Reviews

A Sad Story That Needs No Sympathy: A review of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

by Jessica Harrington

Nick Flynn has an impressive resume. Some Ether (2000) and Blind Huber (2002) are the first two books of poetry he put out; the former won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and he received  fellowships from The Guggenheim Foundation and The Library of Congress for the latter. His first memoir, which I am reviewing, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004) won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, has been translated into 14 languages, and has been made into a film, Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, and Paul Dano which came out last spring. He has recently published a second memoir titled The Ticking is the Bomb (2010) and a third book of poetry that is related to this latest memoir titled The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands (2011). Did I mention he is also a playwright, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins (2008), a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Houston (in the spring only), AND his essays and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, and NPR’s This American Life. Oh, and how could I forget, he was also the artistic collaborator for a 2006 film Darwin’s Nightmare which was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary. In short, the man is amazing.

After reading his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I am not surprised at his success. As Devin Friedman from GQ magazine said in his review of the book, “In a perverse action of divine intervention, a life worth writing about was bestowed on a man actually able to write.” I couldn’t agree more, not only is Flynn’s story absolutely amazing, his writing is so beautiful you cannot help yourself from wanting to read more. The book is not broken up into chapters, just memories. Some are a few pages long, others only a few paragraphs. He does not recite all events in his life in chronological order, but instead introduces himself grown up, back pedals to his childhood, then even further to when his father and mother were young, before his life began. By doing this, he lets us peek into the lives of the people who shaped his life. He does this without judgments, just putting the story out there and letting you, the reader, form your own opinions. Reading his book is like getting to know the backstory of a friend over coffee, Flynn gives you little pieces and stories  that slowly come together to give explanations for the man in front of you.

This book also hits a personal note for me. To share without getting too personal I, like Flynn, had an alcoholic father. It has shaped me into who I am today and, as a child, was a huge identifier of the person that I was. His actions and addictions cast a shadow, a veil, over my life that for a long time I couldn’t get out from under. I have always wanted to write about my stories but I never wanted to do it in a way that demanded sympathy from the reader. I do not wallow in my experiences and I do not feel sorry for myself. My life has been my life, some had it better and many have had it far worse. Over the years though, I’ve noticed that it is difficult to share my story without an “I’m sorry” or “You poor thing” accompanied with a soft pat on the back or hug. Now it’s not to say that I don’t appreciate that, it touches me that people can be that caring, but it bothers me because that reaction is not what I am seeking when I share my tale. It’s just my perspective, my experience.

Flynn has managed to share his story, which is full of “I’m sorry” and “You poor thing” moments, without making the reader feel like they need to be empathetic or treat him as if he is fragile. His writing is poetic, it is funny, it is real. The following excerpt is from a short two-page section titled two hundred years ago:

If you had been raised in a village two hundred years ago, somewhere in Eastern Europe, say, or even on the coast of Massachusetts, and your father was a drunk, or a little off, or both, then everyone in the village, those you grew up with and those who knew you only from a distance, they would all know that the town drunk or the village idiot was your father. It couldn’t be hidden or denied. Everything he did, as long as you stayed in the village, whether shouting obscenities at passing children or sleeping in the cemetery, all would be remembered when they looked at you, they would say to themselves or to whomever they were with, It’s his father, you know, the crazy one, the drunk, and they couldn’t help but wonder what part of his madness has passed on to you, which part you had escaped. They would look into your eyes to see if they were his eyes, they would notice if you were to stumble slightly as you stepped into a shop, they would remember that your father too had started with promise, like you. They would know he was a burden, they could read the struggle in your face, they would watch as you passed and nod, knowing that around the next corner your father had fallen and pissed himself. And they would watch you watch him, note the days you simply kept walking, as if you didn’t see, note the days you knelt beside him, tried to get him to rise, to prop him up. If they were friends and came by your house they couldn’t help but notice whether you had an extra room, or whether you own situation seemed precarious, marginal. And they might not say anything but they would take it in and wonder, either way it meant something. If this was two hundred years ago you left the village maybe once a month, to bring whatever it was you grew or fabricated- onions or oil, wine or cloth- to a distant market to sell, only to return in a day or two to the village, and you might get the sense, perhaps rightly, that there was nowhere else on earth for you to be, that to leave the village would be akin to banishment, to enter into a lifetime of wandering, to become open to speculation that you’d abandoned your father to his fate, turned your back, left him to die. Taken and not given back.  For if you are not responsible for your own father, who is? Who is going to pick him up off the ground if not you?

Flynn beautifully captured the feeling of wanting to run away because of the embarrassment and shame, yet the guilt and responsibility a child feels to not abandon their parent, to not leave them for dead. His way with words and imagery is one that I can only hope to someday produce in my writing. His observations and the connections he makes are entertaining, exposing, and evoke a cornucopia of emotions from laughter to tears. If you too have had a life or experience that was rocky, unstable, or unfortunate, and you don’t want to write about it from the “poor me” angle, I suggest reading Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Flynn, indirectly, taught me how I can share my story without the need for sympathy- how to share my story without bringing people down.

The Butte College Reading Series will be hosting a reading by Nick Flynn on October 1, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. in Ayers Hall room 106 on CSU Chico campus. It is a free event, open to the public, but donations are welcome and appreciated. If you would like more information, please visit Nick Flynn’s website here.
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About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.

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