The Rumpus Review of Being Flynn

By

Nick Flynn’s words sucker-punch me and drag me through Boston’s back-alley construction zones, skimming eruptions of broken glass. Across crumbling and unforgiving asphalt I arrive battered, gutted, laughing, astonished.
What the fuck just happened? I close my eyes, afraid to open them and find that he’s yanked me into a part of myself that I want removed. A dark corner of my insides that I want to cover up, ignore, wish away. Opening my eyes, he shoves a clouded mirror in my face. Poor lighting, stomach aching, Nick Flynn is beside me, handing over a bundle of new spring daffodils, reading a poem, reassuring me that everything will be okay. That we can make anything beautiful if we examine the bullshit with new angles. I trust him. And turn the page.

Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, isn’t for those with delicate stomachs or iron hearts. Some dive in, only to crawl or flee in the opposite direction after a few short chapters. His words are raw, a song about being lost, about the great lengths we go to in search of understanding and acceptance. It’s too sad, they think. That guy is fucked up, they think. I want to read something happy. And they, all of them, miss out.

Suck City is the golden ticket to understanding the complexities of being human. From the driver’s seat, Flynn steers us through his story: Absent father. Overworked mother. Suicide. Addiction. Trouble-making. Crime. Poverty. Homelessness. Frustration. Laughter. Despair. Staying afloat. One minute we’re gazing quietly out at the Atlantic, the next, we’re hunched over, clutching a crack pipe in a piss-stained stairwell. Throughout it all, we’re unraveling and picking apart the incidents that brought us here with him.

Though physically absent, Flynn’s father is a heavy presence, a force, an entity that daunts him from the periphery of his own life. Letters penned from prison, WANTED posters featuring his father’s photograph, subtle comparisons to his mother’s boyfriends, Flynn carries it all like a weight. Just a few brutal years after his mother’s suicide, his father reappears as a tangible presence. He’s a hateable, loveable, outrageous mess. A vodka-guzzling racist egomaniac, a thief, a descendant of Narcissus himself, Jonathan Flynn is a self-proclaimed great American writer with an elusive manuscript that may or may not exist outside of his own delusions of grandeur. And he’s now homeless, sleeping outside in the biting cold Northwest winter until a thread of humility leads him into a Boston homeless shelter where his son, Nick Flynn, is employed.

Needless to say, the result is a mindfuck of epic proportions. Anyone who has walked that frayed tightrope between compassion and codependency, held onto regrets so painful they draw blood, ran so fast to escape the past only to find themselves backed us into a corner, will find the horrible beauty and courage in this story a gift beyond value. There is no sap leaking through these pages. No overly self-indulgent martyrdom. Just truth.

The book has been adapted for the big screen under the title Being Flynn, and it is incredible. Of course with any translation from print to screen, slices of Suck City are omitted. Emily, Flynn’s long-term girlfriend isn’t there. His brother is entirely absent. And the summers of respite on board Flynn’s beloved boat, EVOL, don’t exist on the screen. And of course, the intensity of reading the 300+ pages of Flynn’s breathtaking prose, alone, in the dark, over the course of a dreary, rainy weekend cannot be condensed into a two-hour film. But director Paul Weitz gets it. After thirty drafts and seven years of disassembling and reconstructing the screenplay with Flynn by his side, it is no surprise that what he brings to the screen is the same raw essence found in Suck City. Weitz makes us want to hold Paul Dano. Then practice tough love. And maybe take him to rehab. Then tell him secrets. And push him away. And hold him again. And unless Jonathan Flynn is played by himself with a custom, hand-crafted Robert De Niro face mask, De Niro is a wizard. It is frightening how he channels the Jonathan Flynn discovered in the pages of Suck City.

Weitz also brings out much of the humor that might be overlooked in the memoir. De Niro is a hysterical maniac and Dano channels Flynn’s wry, deadpan coping mechanisms without a hitch. Sometimes finding humor in the dark is the only road away from madness; Weitz makes sure to show us this. Though dark, even sadistic at times, the humor is essential to this story. Like Flynn, sometimes all we can do is laugh. What else is there, really?

The film is shot in New York, a decision Weitz mentioned in a post-screening Q+A, that he made based on logistics for De Niro, shooting costs and the complexities of bringing on a cast and expecting them all to perfect hard Boston accents. He also let go of the idea of focusing on the film as a period piece, leaving out details of life in the 1990’s, instead offering a relatively timeless film, draped with shadows, foggy hues, brick and the cold barren skies of winter. Along with the visuals, Weitz solicited musician Damon Gough– known to fans as Badly Drawn Boy– to compose the entire original score. Minor notes, strings, gray. It fills the space between homeless men climbing stairs to communal showers, it hangs in the air beside Dano and his first steps into addiction recovery, and acts as a barrier between the warmth of the homeless shelter’s outreach van and men, freezing in boxes, tucked around street corners, breathing out ice, living pieces of socioeconomic injustice.

Flynn’s book, this film – they are keys to what it means to love and despise; to fear and embrace; to be perfectly flawed and alive despite what is thrown our way. Suck City and Being Flynn teach us that when we accept the challenge, give in and set out, sorting through the murk of life we can all find something worth cradling and nurturing. Even if we can only find it through fumbling, crashing, spinning though our minds, tearing our hearts apart with regret, putting them back together and still loving those people and parts of ourselves that we’ve lost.  Maybe we find laughter in a dark corner somewhere. Maybe we find love in an unlikely place. Maybe none of it will ever make sense and the beauty lies in that. There is something great underneath it all. Those of us still here– living, fighting, loving–can survive. I trust this, and turn the page.


Dani Burlison is a staff writer for a Bay Area alt-weekly, a recent columnist at McSweeney's Internet Tendency and a freelancer of epic proportions who also slings zines and teaches writing workshops. She is currently working on her first book. To find her or her essays, book reviews and more, visit http://www.daniburlison.com or @DaniBurlison on Twitter. More from this author →