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New York Times Book Review 19 Sept

New York Times Book Review 19 Sept

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Published by: abremmer on Jan 07, 2010
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New York Times Book Review19 sept 2004Sins of the FatherBy VENDELA VIDA
NIGHT . . .
A Memoir.
By Nick Flynn.
347 pp. W. W.Norton & Company. $23.95.IT takes guts to give a book a title that many publications, including this one,can't print in its entirety. The title of Nick Flynn's book gives the (not whollyaccurate) impression that it's the memoir of a 20-something urbanite, and nodoubt it will lure a young -- and fortunate -- audience. It would be a shame,though, if potential readers dismissed the book because of the title alone -- itssource, by the way, is quite unexpected -- because Flynn has written a potent,distinctive autobiography.At its core, Nick Flynn's book is the story of his relationship with his father,Jonathan, a drunk and a con man who has served time in federal prison for bankrobbery. Jonathan then becomes homeless, seeking refuge at the Pine StreetInn, the South Boston shelter where Nick has been working for three years -- firstas a counselor, then as a caseworker.When they meet again, Nick is 27. Although he's only seen his father once, whenhe was 8, their lives aren't so dissimilar. They are both drinkers and drifters (atsome points, it seems that Nick's life is only a few drinks and bad breaks awayfrom Jonathan's), and both are aspiring writers. Nick will eventually publish twobooks of poetry. Jonathan, who, Nick notes, ''has slept in a cardboard box,'' isholding out for a $2 million advance ''so he can begin, or finish, the project thatdefines his entire life, the book he's been writing since before I was born.'' And ofcourse, there is the strange -- and to Nick, troublesome -- fact that they both findthemselves at the same shelter, at least for a few hours a day. Nick livesalternately in a Boston warehouse and on a boat that he finally sells for a dollar.Flynn deftly shows us exactly how they both ended up where they are. Nick'smother, Jody, left Jonathan when she was 20 and Nick was 6 months old. Sheraised Nick and his older brother, Thaddeus, in her hometown, Scituate, Mass.,while working multiple jobs -- bank teller, waitress, supermarket employee. WhenNick is 22, Jody, who is lovingly portrayed, commits suicide; afterward, Nick hasa breakdown. He drops out of the University of Massachusetts, where he's beengiven a full scholarship, and he and a friend fix up a boat, which they eventuallydock near Boston. Nick meets a woman who works at the Pine Street Inn, andshe helps get him a job.The position at Pine Street is a good fit for Nick, who at this point seems to prefer
relationships in which he doesn't have to be accountable, and in which he can dowhat he's been doing for much of his life, which is hide. One day, out of nowhere,his father calls. ''I'm sitting behind my door with a shotgun,'' he says, ''waiting forthe knob to turn.'' Nick rushes to his father's building. ''I find him sitting naked in agalvanized tin tub in the center of his room,'' Flynn writes, ''bathing and drinkingstraight vodka from a silver chalice, like some demented king in the MiddleAges.'' And there is no shotgun. This is the core image that will haunt Nick -- hisfather as a semi-mad alcoholic in need of attention.Soon after, when Jonathan becomes homeless, he shows up at Pine Street.Eventually, he is banned for unruly conduct, and Nick is reluctant to take him in tohis own home. ''If I let him inside I would become him,'' he tells us, ''the linebetween us would blur, my own slow-motion car wreck would speed up.''A few years after being reunited with his father, Nick starts going to A.A.meetings and seeks the guidance of a Zen master. He moves to Brooklyn andbegins teaching poetry to public-school students. After Nick's life has grown morestable, and Jonathan has found housing, Nick begins to visit him in Boston everyfew months. He asks questions about his mother; he asks to see his father'snovel. Jonathan's answers are rarely straightforward, and as Nick begins tosuspect that perhaps his father's novel doesn't exist -- that his father may besome kind of cross between King Lear and Joe Gould -- he grows increasinglyfrustrated:''As I reread his letters, as I try to write out his life, I worry that his obsession haspassed into me, via the blood, via the letters, via the vision of him rising nakedfrom a tin tub. . . . The only book ever written about or by him, as far as I can tell,is the book in your hands. The book that somehow fell to me, the son, to write.''Flynn's memoir comprises 81 short chapters that jump around in time. These areoften experimental in form: some, no longer than a paragraph, are like prosepoems, others are structured as plays. For the most part, this experimentationpays off, though a one-act entitled ''Santa Lear'' comes long after the reader hasmade the connection between the mad king and Jonathan.Flynn's talents are considerable -- he has a compelling voice and a wry sense ofhumor, especially about himself. He avoids the pitfalls that come with his subjectmatter: when writing about his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, hekeeps therapy-speak at bay; when describing his work at the shelter, he's utterlyunsanctimonious.As Nick straightens out his own life and grows passionate about teaching, hestruggles with how best to help his father. If the last chapter is any indication, it'snot clear he can. Just as Lear has trouble, in the end, recognizing Cordelia,

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