Review: Another Bullshit Night In Suck City

I just finished reading a charming, heart-warming book that couldn’t have been more perfect for the Christmas season. It’s called Another Bullshit Night In Suck City by Nick Flynn.

another-bullshit-night-in-suck-city-book-cover

Bullshit Night is a memoir in which Flynn recounts his life as it intertwines with the life of his destitute, alcoholic, often homeless father. When his mother packs Nick and his brother up and leaves Jonathan, their father, when Nick is just six months old, he won’t meet his father again for more than 20 years.

Following a string of jobs, Nick finds himself employed at the Pine Street Inn, one of the largest homeless shelters in Boston. After working there for a few years, he becomes pretty familiar with the men in the shelter, their tics, their idiosyncrasies. It’s almost as if he knows his father completely before he even meets him in his adult life.

Pine Street Inn, Boston

Pine Street Inn, Boston

Nick has seen it all, from junkies with holes in their arms that won’t heal, to men with tears tattooed on their cheeks (which means they’ve killed someone), to men with scars from the corners of their mouths to their ears (which means they’ve squealed). Some have earlobes that have been nibbled off by rats, and one man even performed amateur dentistry on himself:

“At one point David’s teeth were giving him trouble, so he got a book on dentistry from the library and began to learn on himself. He opens his mouth and shows us, how he’d pulled out the infected tooth with pliers, super-glued tiny nails in its place.”

Of the homeless men, Joy, a woman who works the front desk at Pine Street, says, “We catch them on the way down. Next stop, the morgue,”

While for most people, working at Pine Street would be depressing and disheartening, Nick finds that it is the only thing that gives him purpose. In a chapter of the book called “Exterminator,” Nick talks about giving a man named George a Kwell.

lice

Kwell is the name of a skin lotion/shampoo that is used to kill bugs like lice and scabies that feast on human blood. Its active ingredient is DDT, the banned pesticide. Nick says:

“Nothing in the shelter makes more sense to me, makes me understand my purpose more, than to kill bugs on a homeless man’s flesh, to dress him well in donated, cast-off clothes, to see him the next day, laughing beside a burning barrel.”

Meeting his father again after 24 years with the only contact being Jonathan’s letters, Nick tells his father never to step foot into Pine Street. However, after a few more months of stuffing his clothes with newspaper and sleeping on benches, his father shows up at the shelter. This results in unwanted sympathetic looks and conciliatory words from Nick’s coworkers. His father is staying here. Following a few violent episodes and major disruptions, Jonathan gets barred from the shelter in the dead of the Boston winter.

snow-homeless

 

When Nick’s brother meets their father again when he is about nine or 10 years old, Jonathan rambles on and on about himself, the novel he’s working on, his latest antics. Not once does he ask Nick’s brother about himself. It is then that he swears never to speak with his father again. When asked why he did illegal things like robbing banks, Jonathan would reply that is was always for the kids, even though they never saw a dime of the spoils.

Jonathan nurses many delusions, one of which is needing to prove to everyone that he “is known.” He writes letter after letter to people like Patty Hearst and Ted Kennedy, and when he receives responses, he frames the letters. With each letter to his son, Jonathan makes sure to include one of the photocopied letters to solidify himself as a person of status. The letters have been photocopied so many times that they are faded and nearly illegible.

One of the constants that runs throughout Bullshit Night is Jonathan’s never-ending talk about the novel he is writing. Often referred to as The Button Man, and later as The Adventures of Christopher Cobb, Jonathan calls this book the next Great American Novel. He claims to have gotten good responses from his publisher and a deal for four million. Nick asks his father repeatedly to see the book, but after waiting for so long and seeing nothing, he begins to call it the Great Unseen American Novel.

Eventually, Nick goes back to school for poetry and publishes a book of his work. When hearing the news, his father is incredulous that his son has scooped him, but reads a few of the poems and gives him feedback. Nick writes:

“Neither my brother nor my grandfather have said a word about my book. Like dropping a pebble into a very deep pond. Just as neither of them has a photograph of my mother on display in their homes, yet there she is, beside my father’s bed.”

One theme that runs throughout Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, is the ever-strengthening parallel between Nick and his father. While Nick grows up without a father, the only male influences being his mother’s countless boyfriends–“father figurines” he calls them–he turns more and more to drugs and alcohol. At the same time, his father is passing out in doorways and forging checks. After becoming an adult, Nick still finds himself turning to the same self-destructive behavior of his youth.

The book is written in short, non-chronological, fragmented chapters that serve to reflect both his father’s alcohol-sodden, mentally unstable mind, as well as his own drug-fogged confusion as he attempts to put the puzzle pieces together. Bullshit Night is also completely devoid of self-pity. Nick is not writing this book to evoke sympathy but rather to share his experiences and the profile of his father in a raw, unhindered venue.

Being Flynn, a film adaptation of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, was released in 2012 and starred Paul Dano, Robert De Niro, and Julianne Moore.

De Niro as Jonathan Flynn on the set of "Being Flynn."

De Niro as Jonathan Flynn on the set of “Being Flynn.”

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