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The prodigal father
Nick Flynn creates a harrowing memoir about two men bound by blood and by the dark worlds they inhabit


I think that I am drunk.


I really need a drink.


I’ll bend

each finger back, until the bottle

falls, until the bone snaps, save him

by destroying his hands.

The first is a scrap of doggerel, scribbled by Jonathan Flynn as he moldered in a holding cell in 1964, a day after he’d stolen a sheriff’s cruiser in a drunken oblivion. The second is from a poem, "Father Outside," by Jonathan’s son, Nick, published in his first book of poetry, Some Ether (Graywolf Press, 2000). That book dealt primarily with the suicide of Nick’s mother; his latest, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (W.W. Norton), is about Jonathan, a wasted, garrulous man who’d been absent for the entirety of Nick’s childhood and adolescence, but always somehow hovered like a phantom on the periphery of his consciousness.

With his new memoir, Nick Flynn has crafted an astonishing, affecting work about a father and a son, and the dark worlds they each inhabit. It’s a bracing, briskly paced excavation of Nick’s conflicted reaction to Jonathan’s jarring re-entry, drunk and without a home, into his life. Exquisitely and often experimentally written, it’s an unsparing look at his father’s struggles, and his own.

Raised in Scituate by a single mother, Nick spent most of his 20s working at Boston’s Pine Street Inn homeless shelter (he now lives in upstate New York). He came to poetry later in life, but once he did, he found immediate success. Some Ether, his debut, won the "Discovery"/The Nation and the PEN/Joyce Osterweil awards. His second volume, Blind Huber (Graywolf, 2002), was also well received. His works have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and the Paris Review, and on NPR. And when the story of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was distilled into a long article in the New Yorker this summer, the buzz only grew.

In some ways, Nick explains, assembling this book, his first nominally prose work, was more difficult than writing about his mother’s suicide. She was gone, after all. His poems about her were visceral reactions — pure, if pained, expressions from within himself. But writing Another Bullshit Night in Suck City meant having long and arduous conversations with Jonathan (who still lives in Boston, in an apartment near the Fenway). It meant reporting, looking through documents and notebooks. It meant dredging up memories, and seeking answers to questions that might be unanswerable.

"It was very complicated," he says, via phone from New York City. "It went through many emotional stages. It’s about my life and about my relationship with my father, and those things are complicated for anyone. Encountering my father was painful and infuriating, and also hopeful ... it was a whole range of emotions. To get into that psychic space, to deal with those things psychically, it was a difficult book to write." At the same time, it was something that, once he was ready, he felt compelled to do. "It’s almost like it wasn’t really a choice to write it," Nick says. "This material was presented to me, and I’m a writer, and at a certain point, when I had processed enough of it, I just had to write it. It started to write itself, almost."

Jonathan Flynn is a man who tells tall tales. Or, at least, he spins stories of questionable veracity. He has claimed that his grandfather’s name is written inside the grasshopper weathervane on Faneuil Hall, and that his father invented the life raft and power window. (Or at times, Nick writes, "it is the life raft and the push-button locks on car doors. Or some sort of four-gig carburetor that saves gas.") But Jonathan himself never invented much of anything except a series of outsize, cobbled-together personas and a raft of apocryphal adventures. In Palm Beach, Florida, he was "Barracuda Buck, Native Guide." In Belmont, selling European sports cars (he was given the sinecure by the nervous father of his pregnant wife), he was "Trader Jon." In Portsmouth, where he labored as a longshoreman and fashioned furniture from driftwood, he was "Sheridan Snow." Sometimes he concocted these aliases to suit the bohemian rogue he fancied himself. Other times — as in the latter case — they served more practical purposes, like evading warrants for nonpayment of child support.

Jonathan purported to be a descendant of Anastasia Romanov. He carried on one-sided epistolary exchanges with Ted Kennedy and Judge Garrity. He once received a letter from Patty Hearst — a boilerplate response to a note of encouragement he’d sent her — and he showed it to all who’d look. ("If you don’t think a letter from Patty Hearst is heavy," he’d later write to his son, "you’re gone.") He wrote the occasional theater review for the Cape Cod News; in 1969, he lauded a young Richard Gere for his performance in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Provincetown Playhouse.

He was a writer, after all. He called himself the Next Great American Poet, and that made it true. The fact that he spent most of his days dead drunk or working half-assed at menial jobs was but a trifle. "To be a poet digging ditches," he’d say, "is very different from being a mere ditch digger." Alas, ditch-digging was not his only calling. In the 1970s, Jonathan was caught forging checks and spent several years in a federal penitentiary for his troubles.

Playwright Brendan Behan once described himself as "a drinker with a writing problem." Jonathan Flynn was one, too — his problem was that he barely wrote. If he had, he scarcely could have invented characters more intriguing and infuriating than the ones he inhabited. As he enacted the great play of his life, Jonathan was almost entirely absent from the lives of his sons. Nick Flynn remembers a quick visit from Jonathan and his new wife when Nick was eight, but that was the last time he’d see his father until the late 1980s. By then, a 27-year-old Nick was working at the Pine Street Inn and living in a decrepit loft in the Combat Zone — as well as nursing a substantial alcohol and drug problem, and grappling with the lingering wounds of his mother’s suicide five years earlier.

Jonathan had slid further into dissolution by this point. And his sudden appearance, startling and baleful like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, threw his son for a loop. Sometimes Jonathan was lucid, but more often he was not. Almost always, he was drunk. And before long, he was homeless, sleeping in ATM lobbies and on benches by the Esplanade. At first, Nick looked on from a distance, even when Jonathan started arriving at Pine Street during Nick’s shifts, even when he slept wrapped in newspaper, his toes gnawed by frigid midnight. This man, this "blustering, damaged man," was all but a stranger to him. Worse, he represented danger, the possibility that he could upend Nick’s precarious sanity, drag him down. "I could have given him a key, offered a piece of my floor," Nick writes. "But if I let him inside, the line between us would blur, my own slow-motion car wreck would speed up."

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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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