It wasn’t brilliant. And then it was. The standout artistry in Nick Flynn’s Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City is akin to a photographic mosaic—those large images that an up-close look reveals are crafted of carefully placed individual photos. Each one of those photos tells a story of its own and doesn’t need the other images to have an impact, and it may be that when you take a close look and see all those photos smashed together in a way seems random you say, Huh interesting decision there, Artist, but if you give the image a berth of ten, fifteen feet, you discover, well, the big picture. And that is the sneaky brilliance of Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City—a string of chapters, most of which can stand alone as essays in their own right, that lead the sometimes-disoriented reader to unravel a man’s understanding of what he’s beginning to know in the mirror.
I actually hesitate to call the bits of Flynn’s memoir chapters. Conventionally schooled, I’m trained to see chapters as things that come from a table of contents. But without that table of contents in Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City I feel the freedom to interpret the pieces as something else—headings? sections? prose poems? For the bulk of the book, I’m most comfortable calling the slices “essays,” things that don’t need friends to hold them up, things that start on a new page, things that boast a title of their own. To deem a piece of writing as robust enough to merit its very own title I believe it needs three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Which is to say—it needs to kick itself off with a enough juice to keep you reading, it oughta say something, and, most importantly, I think, it must close in a manner that leaves you sated such that you can put down the book and go downstairs for another soda without feeling oddly hollow. I’m convinced that that brave finish comes from a strong closing line.
Flynn’s “essay” “The Fact Foundation of America” (121-122) illustrates just such a complete experience. Here, the opening line: “The first letter I got from my father was handwritten on prison stationery, but once he is released the letterhead appears, the creamy envelopes” (121). Done. Lovely. Sucks the reader right in. What does the piece go on to say? What’s its reason for being? In no more than 350 words, and without the help of any other “essay” in the book we receive a picture of a father once incarcerated, a son disenchanted, a major news event, delusion, desperation, and reluctant understanding. After we’re fed all that, the closing line stamps out the fire just in time with, “On the bottom of one [letter] my father writes, If you don’t think a letter from Patty Hearst is heavy—you’re gone” (122). Reading this “essay” without the support of the rest of the book or historical context may leave a reader confused about Patty Hearst, but I’m not even sure context is necessary; it’s not the writer’s job to make sure the reader knows exactly what they’re talking about—it’s the writer’s job to make sure the reader wants to know exactly what they’re talking about.
“The Time of Your Life” (54-55) is another of the many Bullsh*t examples of a very short stroke—this particular one about 300 words, only 2 paragraphs—worthy of its own examination as a sturdy piece. This “essay” sketches out the notion of disparity between classes in close proximity and the ridiculousness of it all. We come to understand that the Pine Street Inn, a shelter, is a symbol and survivor of urban decay and just across the street from this “Inn” is a symbol of urban renewal, the Medieval Manor, one of those eat-with-your-hands-and-watch-performers-on-horseback-try-to-skewer-each-other spectacles that’s got its very own brochure. That is the picture the “essay” offers. And it’s served up wryly, closing “Occasionally, when dinner is being served at Pine Street, a well-dressed party of four appears at our front door, obviously having taken a wrong turn. They ask, timidly, if this is the Medieval Manor, and sometimes I say yes, and direct them inside” (55). A city. Two buildings. The homeless. The more privileged. And a camera lens positioned just so. The “essay” may be part of a larger story, but it’s not any less effective when read apart.
He did it. Flynn did what I want to do, and it’s useful—hopeful, even—to see that it can work. Along the way I read a string of essays, satisfying alone and a little frustrating side-by side, but I got to the end, tossed the book onto my bed, and told my dog that I finally got it. I didn’t resent the fact that the adventure was bewildering at times, for that’s certainly what Flynn himself experienced when living it all.
I like bite-sized. I’m developing a fetish for short essays. And if you add up all my disjointed bits there’s a story—there is, right? I mean there has to be one somewhere, doesn’t there?—but I’ve been struggling with understanding how these small bites can make a meal. To figure how how it’s going to work for my work will take some doing, but discovering the success of my aims in Flynn’s Bullsh*t is serving to set me on course.
(Work Cited: Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City)