I was turned off from memoirs after reading Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. I wasn’t sure why the life-story of an alcoholic writer with a messed up family was worth my time. It felt like a long string of glorified bad decisions. Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, fell into the same category, but it had a catchy title so I gave it a shot anyway.
The book chronicles two timelines that eventually merge - Nick’s life, from birth to now, and his father Jonathan’s life from, marrying Nick’s mother to the present. Nick relays his father’s stories with scepticism. His father, we are lead to believe, is a phony. He cashes phony checks and he writes phony novels. He exaggerates his illnesses and his importance in the world.
As an adult, working at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter in Boston, Nick crosses paths with his father. Jonathan is on the edge of homelessness, with some mental illness dogging him as he ages. Eventually he ends up on the street, always potentially right around the corner from his son.
They are in the same city, but Nick does not take him in. While his seldom mentioned brother has disavowed his father, it’s clear that Nick holds guilt for his own inaction. He is torn between wanting to help his biological father and wanting to ignore the father who was never a father. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that the contact the son has with the father is not all coincidental. Flynn could have left Boston. He could have found a new job. He didn’t have to help out a man he had little connection to. By the end of the story he openly wonders why he’s sticking around, making excuses to see his father.
It’s curiosity that keeps him around. But it’s not as simple as someone wanting to know who his father is. Nick wants to find out if who his father - as described in numerous letters the latter has written to him - is really who his father is. Are all the letters about the novel Jonathan is writing truthful? Are the stories of his past to be believed? The reader shares Nick’s scepticism because his father comes off as a liar, or maybe a braggart, or a charlatan. The funny thing is, some of it ends up being true in the end. Some of his backstory checks out. He was writing a novel but, given how his life plays out in his later years, mental illness might have derailed any chance of completing it. And so maybe his troubles with the law weren’t all his fault. Maybe, despite consistently failing to produce, he really meant to write that novel.
Nick still seems a little weary of his father. But Jonathan is at least inside at the time of publication. Honestly, I had assumed the story would end at the man’s death. But he’s still alive. Ultimately, what set this apart from Running With Scissors is that I felt Nick Flynn’s quest had some value to it. He was reckless and he was a drunk, but his story seemed to have a deeper purpose. His words and actions and motives seemed sincere. And maybe most importantly he examined himself in the process. He may not have known it when it was happening but by the time he was writing his memoir he saw the similarities in the mistakes both men had made in life.