Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is unlike any other memoir – and maybe unlike any other book – I’ve ever read. It is, both structurally and stylistically, a masterpiece. During my reading, I never once came across a false note or a misplaced word.
The story, basically, is that of Nick and his father – estranged, strange – and their slow circling of one another for years and years throughout the city of Boston. The narrative circles, too, mirroring this movement. It takes us into childhood homes, fetid apartment buildings, homeless shelters of all kinds and, importantly, it also now and again leaves us outdoors. We find out what it’s like to spend a night on the steam grates outside the public library during the ruthless frigidity of February. We hunker down in doorways. On benches. Beneath the weak, wet, sagging ceiling of a cardboard box. Flynn remaps the city for us, shows us the legions of homeless so often hiding in plain sight among us.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is by turns tragic, funny, beautiful, heartbreaking, appalling, inspiring, frustrating, confusing, bleak, and bright. It gives us, in a word, life. A big heaping dose of it, in all its messy glory.
The passage below describes the TV-viewing activities of Nick, his older brother, and his mother shortly after the latter breaks things off with a boyfriend – a gentle, often kind, but deeply unreliable man, shattered as he is by an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from a brutal tour in Vietnam. The passage showcases Flynn’s abilities as good as any passage could. However, the book is so full of exceptional writing that it was a struggle for me not to bend down the corners of every single page, and another struggle to sit down and choose just one passage to share.
. . .
From “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” by Nick Flynn (pp. 103-106)
Part of watching the Red Sox together was to hunker down, circle the wagons, show a unified front. Travis kept coming back and we needed to fortify against him. But the greater (if unspoken) part for my brother and me was to be close to our mother, to keep an eye on her. It was clear she was slipping away from us, from this world. My brother understood this first, I think, or I just didn’t want to understand it. We’d huddle in her bedroom, transfixed, as men who had a clear sense of purpose strode up to the plate to face down our newfound heroes. Bill “Spaceman” Lee – who advocated the reform of marijuana laws and had spoken out against the war in Vietnam. Luis Tiant – the overweight Cuban exile – whose tics and gestures were weirder than those of any human being we’d ever seen. His mid-windup pivot could last so long that it was impossible to hold your breath while he stared into the infield. He waggled and ducked and twisted and toppled and sneered and menaced and paused and, as one commentator noticed, looked like he was trying to kick off his left shoe. There was something about his body, how all of this struggle led to so many perfect throws, that gave us hope. He didn’t make it look easy.
I’m fifteen, an age when most kids are breaking from their parents, spending more time with their friends, developing a secret language only they can understand. But now my mother, brother and I are developing our own common language, talking about Fred Lynn and Bernie Carbo over dinner, over our newfound couscous and curries. We know the strengths and weaknesses of each player, how they’d done against the A’s last time around, who to watch out for, who was a hitter, who’d made what incredible catch. I’d been raised to be independent, cooked for myself since I could reach the stove, never had an allowance, left to my own bad devices for as long as memory. My mother had made it clear that she wouldn’t be around forever – If something happens to me . . . , she’d say. To look into her face for too long only brought up dread. To stare as one into the television on a hot Saturday afternoon, to glimpse the world outside still going on, unfolding with or without us, to feel part of something larger, something that made it to the newspapers every day, that people seemed excited about, something to get caught up in and carried along by – Tiant would be pitching next Saturday, maybe reason enough to stick around, if just to see how it turned out, if just to see him smoke the bastards.
Then the improbable happened – the Red Sox kept winning. Carlton Fisk stood at the plate and the entire Eastern Seaboard held its breath. A big man, “Pudge” leaned into his swing, effortlessly he could knock it out of the park, we’d seen it before, it was in him. We didn’t breath.
In the end they broke our hearts, but not before getting us almost to Thanksgiving. Sprawled in her bedroom, my mother propped up with pillows, I’m on my belly beside her, my brother in the la-z-boy. It’s all history now, something about the sixth game of the Series against the Reds, how Pudge hammers one at the last possible moment, bottom of the twelfth, how it hangs over the foul line for an eternity, how he stops halfway to first and jumps in the air, swinging his arms to the right to force it fair. I remember perfectly, the way his body moved, jumping up on his toes, a series of little bunny-hops, his big hands pushing the air like a desperate Zeus, how everyone at the game or watching on tv does the same, damn near screams, Come on, it’s that important, to win this one game, to let us all move to the next.