Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir

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A Year in Reading: Hannah Nordhaus

I am on a memoir kick. In the last couple of months I’ve plowed through Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and I recently started — not kidding — a book called The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, by Holly Robinson. I read too quickly, and I often find that what I retain a few weeks after I’ve gobbled a book, is an image or moment that somehow encapsulates the work — the essence that stays behind when everything else fades. Suck City is a resonant, haunting story of how an abandoned son comes to accept the hugely flawed humanity of his skid-row dad. The image I hoard from that book is of the author walking down a Boston street with his “gnomelike,” almost comically diminished father — “cross-eyed, stiff gait, smaller and smaller.” I can’t stop thinking of it: the father—so grandiose, so damaged—tottering crookedly down the sidewalk, taking credit for the trees that line the street and the steps that anchor his building. The Liar’s Club is also about an unmoored parent and a turbulent childhood, and nobody who has read it can soon forget the terrifying sight of the author’s crazed, wasted, theatrically immoderate mother hovering in her daughters’ bedroom doorway with her “wild corona of hair,” brandishing a shiny kitchen knife. But I think back to a more intimate tableau: of the family eating dinner together each night in the parents’ massive bed, facing opposite walls, “our backs together, looking like some four-headed totem, our plates balanced on the spot of quilt between our legs.” The image is so familiar and sad and touching at the same time, and it says everything about how our weird family arrangements can break us, but also make us who we are. Families are ecosystems unto themselves, and since I have written a book about bees and humans, I now see signs of symbiosis everywhere — flowers, bees, people, animals, families, all the dependencies that go into making a life. I’m particularly interested in how people coexist with pets, and that’s how I ran across Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter. It is also about, yup, a kid coming to terms with her unusual childhood, though as far as parental pathologies go, you could do worse than suffering through your father’s gerbil-husbandry fixation (the author’s Navy-commander father decides to stake the family’s future on raising gerbils). It’s a fun book, sad as well, though not so vivid and thought-provoking and lyrical as the two I read before. But then, those books don’t have gerbils: 8,700 of them. Now there’s an image. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

How Do I Get Home? A Profile of Nick Flynn

When Nick Flynn drives around his hometown, Scituate, Massachusetts, he inevitably passes the houses he lived in with his mother and brother—six of them within the first five years of his life. In the past few decades, unsurprisingly, money has been pumped into Scituate, a small coastal city, but amid the explosion of seaside wealth, every house Flynn lived in looks worse for the wear. “They’re all still there,” he tells me, “sort of falling apart, with the same paint I painted on them just peeling off in sheets.” It’s an image that could be lifted straight from a dream—or one of his poems in Some Ether, or a chapter of one of his memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City or the newly published The Ticking is the Bomb. These ghost-houses are emblematic of Flynn’s writing—homes slowly being erased, shadowed, built on shaky foundations or none at all, people and places eroding. I imagine Cape Cod-blue houses, freshly painted, or creamy McMansions next to the scattered avocado green, tan, fading yellow of Flynn’s childhood homes. I ask if he ever knocked on the door of any of the houses; he says he went into one years ago, but hasn’t since. “There’s no pitbulls in the yard, but there’s something sort of up, like troubled people live in these houses. It’s really strange. It’s not like the whole town went into disrepair. It’s just the places we lived in.” In the past decade, Flynn has lived in Rome, Dar es Salaam, and divided his time (as writers’ bios are wont to say) between teaching at the University of Houston and living in New York, either in Brooklyn or his house upstate. Fluidity of home and identity carries through Flynn’s writing. In The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn writes about buying his house upstate several years ago. “My natural born restlessness only seemed to grow the more days I spent there. Rooted? I ended up staying in the house only to work on it, and then I’d leave… I moved around more those first two years of owning a house than I ever had—I was vapor, I was air, I was nowhere.” The Ticking is the Bomb is a process-oriented memoir—in short, about the torture condoned by the U.S. government in recent years, juxtaposed with Flynn readying himself to become a father. Dated (but not chronological) vignettes mix with surreal extended metaphors which, while part of the narrative, I had a hard time convincing myself were not prose poems. “This book could have been poetry,” Flynn says. The first pieces Flynn wrote, before he knew he was writing his next memoir, were four long poems; they remained in the book up until its last edit. Flynn says the poems “became four pillars, scaffolding, that the whole book was built around. Then I took them away and the book was there.” (The poems will appear in Flynn’s next collection, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, out later this year from Graywolf.) The Ticking is the Bomb opens with a sonogram of Flynn’s unborn daughter—“a dream sleeping inside the body of the woman I love” and shifts rapidly to “another set of photographs” one of which Flynn describes plainly as depicting “a naked man being dragged by a soldier out of a cell on the end of a leash.” These other photos, Flynn writes, “also have the texture of dreams—shadowy, diaphanous, changeable.” In 2004, like most of us, Flynn heard of Abu Ghraib for the first time; he didn’t know if it was “one word or two, a building or a city, a place or an idea.” In the course of the next few years, he became part of a handful of what he calls “torture people” and traveled to Istanbul to meet some of the men victimized by American soldiers. At the same time, he was slowly extricating himself from one relationship with a woman while falling in love with his future partner and mother of his child, the actress, Lili Taylor (called Inez in the book). Flynn says, “I began looking at torture without really recognizing that I was also enacting some kind of darker impulses myself. As I pushed into it, I realized there were echoes of the larger culture in my life. Not to make any equivalents to them, at all. But certain brutalization or suffering that’s being sowed.” As immensely personal as The Ticking is the Bomb is, it pushes readers to acknowledge, if not meditate on, the urges lurking inside us, those we tamp down in order to continue, to resist the impulses (conscious or not) to hurt ourselves, the ones we love, even those we don’t. As Flynn comes to understand what he’s writing about, within the book, he says, “Maybe I should tell anyone who asks that I’m writing about Proteus, the mythological creature who changes shape as you hold onto him, who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you, as you ask him your question, as you refuse to let go. The question is, often, simply a variation of, How do I get home?” This is a book full of shape-shifting and slow alterations of character. How do you face other Americans who find the inhumane treatment of people acceptable and even justified? How do you look at a man who says the soldiers who made him stand on a box, hooded, resemble you? How do you transform into a parent after passing the age at which your parents imploded? How do learn to let go of love that is unhealthy? As I prepare to meet Flynn to discuss The Ticking is the Bomb, I try to separate questions into thematic areas, but they fold in on each other, along with images from the book. There is a photograph of Flynn’s mother holding a can of Schlitz, wearing a blond wig and sunglasses— “the Grifters photo” he calls it; his father’s apartment, stacked to the ceiling with newspapers; a monkey sculpted out of lava; a torture pose once called “The Vietnam,” now called “The Statue of Liberty;” twenty year-old Flynn splitting open cut straws found in his mother’s glove compartment, licking out cocaine residue; Flynn bending down to his wife’s belly, two days after their daughter’s due date, murmuring, “We’re waiting for you, little one, the coast is clear.” In another meta-passage of the book, Flynn writes, “Sometimes I’ll say I’m writing a memoir of bewilderment, and just leave it at that, but what I mean is the bewilderment of waking up, my hand on Inez’s belly, as the fine points of waterboarding are debated on public radio.” I meet Flynn one evening in January at a cafe in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where he lives now, with Taylor and their nearly two year-old daughter. Known as more of a brunch spot, the place feels like a B&B dining room or perfect grandma’s country kitchen. I order a chicken pot pie. Flynn, who eats early these days with his daughter, has a pot of tea. As Dionne Warwick sings, “I say a little prayer for you,” through the speakers, I ask Flynn if he wants to talk about torture first or fatherhood? In interviews for The Ticking is the Bomb, he tells me, some people don’t want to talk about torture at all; others only want to talk about it. “I give the mornings to torture and the afternoons are for love,” he jokes. Early on in the book, he writes, “Maybe talking about torture is easier than talking about my impending fatherhood.” I take out the book to rifle through my notes, and Flynn reaches for it, like a kid. He sings the praises of Kapo Ng, the artist who designed the covers of both his memoirs. “You give him the book, and then like a week later he comes back with the cover and nothing changes.” As Flynn thumbs through the book, my notes on Proteus fall out. Flynn says he “got” Proteus from Stanley Kunitz, calls the sea god “a poet’s archetype.” He worries, “You have to be careful of the archetypes you embrace. Our culture embraces Prometheus, which is the same thing as Adam and Eve. He gets punished for knowledge. I never quite understood why we are punished for knowledge.” Both Prometheus and Proteus are symbolically present in one of my favorite passages in The Ticking is the Bomb, “Lava.” Flynn writes of the months following a volcano’s eruption, lava slowly moving towards a village: “Some argued that it was better than a flood, better than a fire—lava gives you time to move out what you most value. I had the idea that the only option would be to uproot your house and put it on a raft and float it to the next island.” Proteus is a distinctly Flynn archetype, even reflected by the loose form of his memoirs. Growing up in Scituate, he tells me, “Everything was damp all the time. You could smell the ocean.” His father claims that his grandfather invented the life raft. Flynn once lived on a boat; in The Ticking is the Bomb he writes, “My twenties, you could say, were water, you could say I was, in a way, more ocean than earth. You could say that whatever was solid in me was slowly dissolving.” Where Flynn lives now, in Brooklyn, he is still close to the water. In the mornings and evenings, if the traffic’s not too loud on a particular street, you can hear ship horns as they pass through the harbor. At a recent reading, he shared a poem called “Kedge,” (a method of anchoring a ship). Another poem, “haiku (failed)” echoes Goodnight Moon but with a nautical edge, with the lines: “bye-bye/ boat, bye-bye rain,” “beating, our bodies the bottle, a ship inside each,” and “here it is still, your heart, is it well/ well welling?” Flynn is indeed a mutable a character in The Ticking is the Bomb, split between two women and briefly returning to substance abuse after years of sobriety. A woman who refuses to have coffee with Flynn, because she is married, tells him, “Two dogs live inside me, and the one I feed is the one that will grow.” He is drawn into a relationship with a woman he calls Anna, who shares some of the same dark impulses that run through his family. In the midst of severing ties with her, Flynn admits, “When I was with her I felt known, perhaps for the first time…Those rooms we shared became a space in which to reveal a darkness I carried inside me, a heaviness that needed to be dragged into the light, or it would sink me.” Where Flynn’s character shifts forms, his partner, Inez, is a solid force. If Flynn’s writing weren’t such a kick in the pants, this could come across as the old “you make me want to be a better man” shtick, but instead he gives us passages like this: When I turn away from the book, Inez is there, radiantly pregnant, seemingly more sure of what’s to come, and this calms me. The baby is, after all, inside her, inside her body—perhaps this makes it more real, for her. But then, Inez has always been this way—certain, or at least seemingly so. It confused me when we first got together, for it seemed that whether I was to stay or go she would be alright, that she would survive. When we were first together I had to face the uncomfortable realization that I wasn't used to calling love something that didn't involve disaster. Flynn evokes Elizabeth Bishop’s familiar words in “One Art”: “the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like, (Write it!) like disaster.” As he struggles to latch on, open up to a stable relationship, he makes new the poets’ old favorite, loss. On their first date, Flynn and Inez talk about having children. In a passage called, “The Tricky Part,” he writes, We weren’t asking each other if we could imagine having children with each other, but we weren’t not asking that either. For years I’d told myself that I could live anywhere, for a year or two…. Some part of me did this with women as well… imagined a new woman as a city I could stay in for a while, then visit from time to time. I’d know my way around, I wouldn’t need a map, but I wouldn’t really live there either. But a child? A child wasn’t like a city, or even a woman. I couldn’t simply visit now and then. Flynn navigates this murky water through his elegant language, trying not to “blame the map [he was] given” for his apprehension. This is not a book of blame, but one of understanding how images and words are manipulated, in personal relationships or in a larger scope. After the Abu Ghraib photographs are leaked, Flynn listens to the U.S. government’s malevolent poets deny what the photos show, twisting language to map their own agenda. Donald Rumsfeld says he is “not going to address the torture word.” Flynn hears victims of torture use words to describe how their bodies were manipulated; looking at photos of himself, a man called Amir says, “I do not believe it was me that was there.” Of the sonogram image of his daughter from 2007, Flynn writes, “I was there when each shot was taken, yet in some ways, still, it is all deeply unreal.” Since then, nursery rhyme language has crept into some of his recent poetry. He has seen every sunrise for two years as he wakes with his daughter, a time he considers meditation. “I’m preparing food for her, making tea, sitting and reading a book to her. It’s not a sitting meditation, but the attention is there,” he says. In the opening passage of The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn writes that he hopes to be able to explain the “dark time” of our country to his daughter as a story in the past. “We got lost for a while, this story will begin, but then we found our way.”

A Year in Reading 2009

The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such "best of" lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest. It's also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones...and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another. And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual "Year in Reading" series - an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we've asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation. Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation Edan Lepucki of The Millions Michelle Huneven, author of Blame Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City David Shields, author of Reality Hunger Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1 Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com Patrick Brown of The Millions Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men John Williams, editor of The Second Pass Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.com Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize Ed Park, author of Personal Days Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica Dan Kois, author of Facing Future Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 | Support The Millions

A Year in Reading: Roland Kelts

Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. He is a contributing writer and editor at A Public Space literary journal and Adbusters magazine, and a columnist at Japan's Daily Yomiuri. He is also the editorial director of Anime Masterpieces, a screening and lecture series, and a professor at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University. His work appears in numerous publications in the US and Japan, and his forthcoming novel is called Access. He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.Just before I left Tokyo for another round of book tour events in the US this past summer, my friend Yuko handed me a copy of Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Ostensibly a memoir, it's one of those books I had subconsciously avoided in the past for reasons I suspect are entirely personal. I knew it had been critically lauded, and I'd even glanced at a few pages in a bookstore aisle, finding the prose fresh, arresting.I also knew that Flynn was chronicling in its pages a life of muted disappointment - and the deeper pain that comes with a trail of persistent bruises as opposed to a knockout punch. I knew the father was an alcoholic, a failed writer, and like most pretenders, increasingly pathetic. And I knew the son was shadow-boxing, cowering in an effort to find strength, and a self.I think I was afraid of reading it for the risk of recognition.But I finally did, thanks to Yuko. I read the book on planes, in hotel rooms, in taxis to and from airports. Each time I opened its pages, I did so with the admixture of helpless hunger and foreboding that is the condition of the addict. Flynn's writing somehow captures the low-lidded wariness, the willful half-seeing yet all-knowing suspicion of a soul perpetually on the verge of tragedy, dangling from its ledge even, but never having the luxury of the fall's full embrace.I finished the book with a queer sense of awe and trepidation. I was not comforted, but I felt like I'd survived. Even now, it's hard for me to return to its pages.More from A Year in Reading 2008

The Weitz Brothers Branch Out

Two very different literary adaptations somehow eluded Scott Rudin's greedy clutches and landed in the lap of American Pie writer/director/producers Chris and Paul Weitz. Chris Weitz has begun filming as both writer and director of The Golden Compass (IMDb), the first installment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (Tom Stoppard, who did the initial drafts of the script, also gets a writer credit). The film has grand expectations, as New Line Cinema has bestowed upon it its most generous budget since Lord of the Rings. The cast includes Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig (the blonde Bond), and Ian McShane, with newcomer Dakota Blue Richards playing the lead role. You may remember that Weitz angered fans of the book when he declared that the adaptation would avoid any mention of God and religion because, well, this is America, and in America, we don't mix God and Nicole Kidman.The other Weitz brother, Paul, is hard at work on his adaptation of Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (IMDb). The first order of business, I imagine, is neutering the title to something like, "Another Totally Awful Night in Really Bad City"? Or maybe just "Suck City"? Just a hunch.(Update, Max adds: Reuters is now reporting that video games based on the His Dark Materials films are on the way.)
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