Nicholas Flynn’s life has been a motley assortment of personal loss, substance abuse, inertia, and petty crime, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to write his way to clarity and perspective. Despite the seemingly endless barrage of set-backs, Flynn has been able to craft his experiences and thoughts into an intense, complex memoir – Being Flynn.
Originally published as Another Bullsh-t Night in Suck City, Being Flynn is composed of vignettes that span the course of Nick’s life. They are fragmentary pieces arranged in an associative, non-linear sequence. While at times it is difficult to transform the fragments into a coherent narrative, the struggle to find meaning gives the reader a glimpse of what Nick has been doing throughout his life – trying to differentiate between grandiose lies and genuine truth, struggling to find meaning in random and unreliable fragments.
Raised by a single mother in Boston, Nick grew up with a revolving cast of father figures. His own father, Jonathan Flynn, was a shadowy presence known only through the rambling, hysterical letters that would periodically end up in Nick’s hands. In his letters, some of which were written in prison, Jonathan fills Nick’s head with distorted fantasies about his father’s astonishing literary talents and accomplishments.
Although he gets older, Nick doesn’t seem to grow up. He is attracted to writing but lacks discipline and seems destined to squander his potential. He gets involved in organized crime, uses drugs and alcohol to numb his mind, and exhibits an innate tendency towards the transient and impermanent: “I’m fast becoming the one who leaves things behind, who blows a rod and pulls into the break down lane and unscrews the plates and walks…Who steps out onto a sidewalk in a small city, into the stifling air, without his shoes, without remembering he was even wearing shoes, or ever wore shoes.”
After years of restless floundering, Nick starts working a regular job at the Pine Street Inn – a homeless shelter in Boston. Just as Nick is moving forward, his father Jonathan shows up at Pine Street and demands a bed. Jonathan’s presence at Pine Street completely destabilizes the fragile routine to which Nick has been clinging. After years of thinking of his father as a purely abstract accumulation of letters and rumors, Nick is defenseless against the mercurial power of his father’s physical presence. His hysterical outbursts are unmanageable, but Nick’s co-workers try to look the other way. No one can reason with him without becoming ensnared in the hypnotic fabrications he constantly concocts. However, as Jonathan’s behavior becomes more volatile and hateful, they are eventually forced to implement a ban, putting him back out on the street.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of a “plot” in Being Flynn. Perhaps that is because all of the real action is internal. While Jonathan is at Pine Street, the boundaries between father and son begin to disintegrate. Nick recognizes himself in his father’s unrealized potential, unmoored lifestyle, and incessant drinking, but doesn’t know how to extricate himself from the future his father embodies. The psychological turmoil that results from this combination of recognition and revulsion is enthralling.
Being Flynn is a captivating read, but I think what makes it incredible is the way Nick incorporates descriptions of Boston’s unhoused population into his personal story. Throughout the memoir, the saga between Nick and Jonathan is carefully nested within a larger story about the homeless and the way they live, both in shelters like Pine Street and out on the street. The portrait Nick constructs of the city’s homeless is perhaps the most poignant and affecting element of Being Flynn. It also elucidates the struggle for stability both Nick and Jonathan experience. Jonathan is homeless throughout much of the book, but it is also apparent that very little separates Nick from being put in a similar position. If his addictions worsen, it would be just a matter of time before he found himself sleeping on a bench or hovering over a warming vent alongside his father.
Nick Flynn has many identities – writer, case worker, alcoholic, disenfranchised son. But Being Flynn demonstrates that beneath all of those facets Nick is an alchemist, transforming suffering into spare, poetic art. One can only hope that he will retain the ability to convert sorrows and setbacks into something meaningful.