A knock-out. Reading as a Writer
One of my all-time favorite books is Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. It’s been most of twenty years since I first read it, and still moments and details swim back to me as I go about a day. The words of these pages haven’t been chased from my mind by all the novels, memoirs, stories, essays and work-in-progress I’ve read since, or by all the movies and Netflix and conversation, all the stress and love and bills and the rest it, all the days.
Open it to any page. The writing is…I want to say “captivating,” but that word feels packaged, dulled and overused, and doesn’t add enough to what I’m trying to convey. I might say “compelling,” but again…Compelling? Oof. The word falls flat.
The writing is…there, boom. On the page. Sentences swing forward, carrying a reader from one to the next…
“We got the acid from Sam. Sam lives in an old camper, the type you pull behind a car — rounded corners, a tiny sink, a table that folds down. He pays a farmer a couple hundred bucks to park it in a field for the winter…”
Just now, I opened the book at random. That is the passage I landed on. The words crash forward, in their directness and imagery.
In grad school, my friend Kevin Canty, now an author, used the word “propulsion.” I’m sure so many others have said it too, about writing. But I remember a particular moment when Kevin said that an essay, like a short story, benefits from a sense of propulsion, and I heard his words and nodded along. The term seemed perfect, instructional, helpful. This morning, though, in my own use, “propulsion” has morphed into one more clumsy way of reaching for something just beyond reach, an academic word for the feeling and purpose of a heartbeat.
The passage quoted above doesn’t represent the heart or tenor of this memoir, overall. But it does contribute to it. It’s one more heartbeat, keeping the pages alive.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an oddly sweet book, a jagged-edged vehicle for one kid’s brokenness, grief carried into adulthood, carried into bafflement, alcoholism, longing…