Sharon Harrigan: The Last Book I Loved, The Ticking is the Bomb


The first thing I noticed about this book, before I even wrestled with its gruesome and tender topics, is the style.

Flynn is a poet, which is clear from the first sentence. Each of the slim chapters—ranging from one-half to five pages—reads like a prose poem, or a brief lyrical essay, a lovely package of philosophy and dreaming, engagement with the world and otherworldly reaching. It is full of gems like this: “The city I’d been building, the book about my homeless father, was locked in the apartment I’d lost the key to.” What’s beautiful about this sentence is that it is not a metaphor; Flynn is describing what actually happened.

The Ticking Is the Bomb opens with a contrast of images, a capsule of the book: sonograms of Flynn’s daughter and photographs of American soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Hope and despair. Birth and death. Pride and shame. What could be more powerful? My husband cried when he saw our daughter’s sonograms, the only time I’ve seen him cry so publicly. The sonogram is idea made flesh, concept turned visual. A mother can feel the baby burping and wiggling, but a father needs the picture as proof. There is a glut of books on mother’s experiences, a trend started by Anne LaMotte’s Operating Instructions in 1994 (brilliant partly because it was pioneering).  But memoirs on fatherhood are rarer, which makes Flynn’s book a special treat.

Unlike many mother-memoirs, Flynn’s book isn’t as much about parenting as it is about mentally preparing to become a parent, confronting fears that he will repeat the mistakes of the previous generation. He is already in his forties, past the age his father was when he abandoned him after six months, older than his mother was when she shot herself to death. Flynn also shows how, as a country, we are repeating the mistakes of the previous generation on a grand scale. Through a trip to Vietnam with his former stepfather, a Vietnam vet, Flynn makes us feel how Abu Ghraib is the massacre at My Lai all over again and how dangerous it is to make decisions about life and death without first evaluating our collective past.

One of the wonderful or terrible aspects of becoming a parent is the way it forces you to relive your own childhood. So Flynn’s mission to reconcile with the ghosts of his past before forging ahead with the fetuses of his future is brave and fitting.

It is a truism that parenthood helps you understand your own parents. Not necessarily forgive them, but see what they saw, inhabit their foreign country, speak their language.

Another seminal image in the book is Flynn’s photograph of his father holding him as an infant. He says: “The look on his face is heavy, as if I were a burden . . . no one would call it happy.” Flynn has no childhood memories of his father, so this picture has to fill in all those blanks. A photo is evidence, proof of what happened. Or is it?

One of the most moving climaxes of the book–when the strands of the story about his father and the story about him becoming a father intersect–is the scene of Flynn seeing this photo differently. “Maybe he’s been up all night, trying to soothe me back to sleep, and what I see in his face is not unhappiness, only exhaustion. If you took a photograph of me one of these sleepless nights . . . you might say that I don’t look especially thrilled . . . but you would be wrong. And so, maybe I’ve been wrong, all these years, about my father.”

I have had several moments like this with my mother. Only when I had my own colicky infant did she reveal that I had also cried every waking moment my first three months of life. Only when I had baby blues did she confess to her own post-partum depression, when she was barely out of her teens and doctors hadn’t named this condition yet so she thought she was going crazy.

But it’s parenting a teenager that has really made me reevaluate my harsh judgment of my mother. We were spending a few days at her house, at the height of my son’s Jeckyl and Hyde transformation, thanks to the hormone surge of puberty. He was out of control, and I felt like a lion tamer without a stick, ashamed of my incompetence. My mother sat with me at the picnic table in the backyard, in the early morning before anyone else woke up. As a way of showing solidarity, she made me revisit my teens. “Remember on your sixteenth birthday,” she said, “when you missed your party because your sister OD’d and had to go to the emergency room?” It is not easy to excavate the truth about the past, as Flynn shows. But it is necessary to reconcile with one’s childhood to become the adult your child needs.

The childhood Flynn is trying to understand and put behind him is not only chronological. His demons include alcoholism and dishonesty in relationships with girlfriends, all the self-destructive behavior keeping him from maturing into a father.

The language is straightforward, often addressing the reader directly as “you,” as if Flynn were telling a story across a kitchen table. The Ticking Is the Bomb is a poetic book, but not because of poetic tropes. Flynn makes few overt analogies. Instead, he takes narrative strands—such as homeless people and tortured prisoners, or burning houses and his mother’s descent into addiction—and simply puts them side by side. He weaves together a tapestry of topics that creates a portrait of America in the 21st century, but he doesn’t tell us how to interpret the finished design.

“All Living Things Have Shoulders” is one of the most beautiful chapters. Even though it is not about torture or fatherhood, it reflects on those subjects and enlarges them. Flynn describes working as an itinerant poet with New York City public schoolchildren, where he “tried to imagine what might happen if each of them knew how important their lives were.” He found a discarded scrap of paper, which he carried around for years, trying find a use for it in a poem, then finally concludes it already is one.  “All living things have shoulders. Period. The end. A poem.”

Sometimes the words speak for themselves. Often, a book can’t be summarized, it just has to be read. The Ticking Is the Bomb. Period. The end. A memoir. A philosophical manifesto on monkey mind, samsara, and Buddhism. A treatise on torture and family. But most of all: a poem.

Sharon Harrigan is the author of the novel Half and the memoir Playing with Dynamite. Her work has appeared widely in places such as the New York Times (Modern Love), Narrative, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. She teaches writing at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her family. More from this author →