The Handmaid’s Tale


This is a book about a lot of things (terrible youth, social inequity, suicide) but it’s at least about Nick Flynn’s reuniting with his alcoholic, homeless father, Jonathan—two-thirds of the personal-memoir triumvirate (parental estrangement; addiction; where’s the sex?). The epigraph is from Endgame, and a Beckettian sense of inevitability—the struggle to finish, suspended between a reality in decay and fervent delusion—pervades the goings-on. Jon, a poet without a poem to his name, is still on the verge of completing his great American novel The Button Man, the existence of which is doubtful. Instead his life, mostly of his own volition, has been a series of job dismissals, nights in drunk tanks from Palm Beach to Boston, failed relationships and imagined ones (with Kurt Vonnegut and Patty Hearst), and bizarre, half-cocked schemes and scams (he’s president of the Fact Foundation of America, Inc.). A stint working for Dippy-Do Doyle in the “checking business” (Jon “took all the risk”) lands him two years in the pen, but it’s romantic, see, ’cause he’s gonna write his “Dostoyevsky,” his “Solzhenitsyn.”

Nick’s life hasn’t been much better. His mother takes the kids and leaves Jon when Nick is six months old. Her live-in boyfriends include a drug smuggler named Liam and a hardened ‘Nam vet who shows an 11-year-old Nick photos of corpses. Dad makes it onto a wanted poster. Meanwhile Nick sets off to become a hard-drinking criminal himself, stooping for Liam on the fish pier; his mother shoots herself, leaving a note in which she says she read a story he wrote about a woman like her, and marveled at “how perceptive” he is. He spends his summers on a fishing boat off Provincetown, “knackered,” “mud-eyed,” and “stinko” (there’s a hilarious chapter composed entirely of drunk-culture parlance), drops out of college, shacks up in a converted strip joint, and starts work at Boston’s Pine Street homeless shelter.

We’re in a world precisely and poetically grotesque. “A few of the old guys have hernias,” Flynn writes. “Their stomachs have fallen into their testicles, which now hang enormously between their legs.” Others suffer epilepsy or brain damage. Applying poison to the lice rashes on one man’s body (“They can be seen crawling over him from twenty paces”), Nick thinks, “This is my destiny.” He’s seen his father around town, on a bench in the Esplanade, wrapped in newspapers near the Common—”another bullshit night in suck city,” Jon says. When Jon starts sleeping at the shelter, Nick takes the van shift to avoid him. Before long, Jon’s OFN (“out for the night”) for “screaming racial slurs, lesbian cracks, verbal threats” again, and gets BH20ed (“barred”) if he doesn’t go to detox; he doesn’t.

Jon’s a prick, a drunk, a self-fictionalizing man-child sans shame (it’s all “grist for the mill”), but when Nick writes of finding him “sitting naked in a galvanized tin tub in the center of his room, bathing and drinking straight vodka from a silver chalice, like some demented king,” it’s hard not to think of (1) his dad as grist, and (2) how things turned out. Just as there’s an inevitability to Jon’s failure, we know (from the jacket bio) that Nick will become the poet his father never was, that he will publish Some Ether (whole section devoted to Dad), win a prize, get a post at the University of Houston. Saddled with this foreknowledge, it’s Flynn’s authentic voice that holds us rapt, keeping both the tragic and redemptive possibilities open (cf. Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes).

The only place Flynn indulges false poeticism is in attempting to connect his father’s “book” to the one he is writing. He’s Jon’s “uncredited, noncompliant ghostwriter”—but Nick, wasn’t Suck City your idea? He writes, “Not enough to be stuck with his body, to be stuck with his name, but to become his secretary, his handmaid, caught up in a folly, a doomed project.” Too much. Still, in his own book, Flynn seems to have adopted a structure that mirrors the haphazard Button Man manuscript of “songs, letters, found documents and scrawlings,” which Jon ultimately hands over. We have our assorted letters, our playscript for Santa Lear, our fact lists and interludes amid these brief, chronologically scrambled chapters. Yet Nick conceived a book; Jon hoped to make one through the force of his believing.

Suck City does contain one Big Fish–y moment, when it turns out Jon’s father really did invent that life raft that saved “thousands” in the world wars. But however built for payoff the plotline is, Flynn’s novelistic sense of emotional distance, omniscient temperament, and grounded prose help us keep our heads above its mucky water. We may even hope Jonathan, now in his seventies, can do the same.