A SINGLE MOTHER in Massachusetts reads through her son’s notebook and shoots herself. Still grieving, the son ends up working in a Boston homeless shelter, where one day his alcoholic father seeks refuge. The father is a bad drunk, as many are, and after a while the clinic votes to bar his reentry. The father spends his first night on the streets, sleeping on exhaust vents behind a library. During the vote that sent him outside, the son either does or does not raise his hand. Then the son writes an entire book about his mom’s suicide and the booze and the homeless shelter and that vote. The writer later stands onstage with the likes of James Frey, and this man, Nick Flynn, makes Frey’s semi-real book about semi-real addiction pretty much disintegrate into oblivion by comparison. Flynn leaves Boston and marries and has a daughter, and his father eventually makes it into a subsidized apartment and then to a hospice and then gets to meet Robert De Niro, who will be playing him in a movie about his son’s book. It’s all Nick Flynn’s doing and the result is Flynn’s third memoir, The Reenactments, a poetic and probing diary of writing, memory, and filmmaking.
Not perhaps since Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s 1982 memoir about his ancestors in Sri Lanka, has a memoir grappled with truth and language and big questions — where the author is from and where he is going and, indeed, where any of us might hope to go — in such an engaging and beautiful set of pages. Flynn is among our very best.
On the film set of Being Flynn the titular author is a constant presence. Unlike, say, Joshuah Bearman, who wrote the article that spawned Argo, or Susan Orlean, whose entanglement with her subject in “The Orchid Thief” led to the film Adaptation, Flynn is a kind of ghoulish presence — because he is the guy who lived it and wrote it and is helping to retell it. Just for a moment, imagine your deceased mother reanimated by a famous actor named Julianne Moore. “My mother is alone again,” Flynn writes early in the book, allowing us to watch him for the first time watching Moore:
I do not reach out again, I do not say hi, though we had spoken just yesterday, the first day she was my mother. […] She was about to read my notebook, the words I wrote, years ago, a story I was working on, which may or may not have set in motion her suicide.
One can imagine this kind of experience putting Flynn in a bad mood. On set one day, he snaps at a boy playing a younger version of himself when the boy asks what you have to do to become a writer. But Flynn regrets his cruelty and becomes tender towards the boy who is ultimately — in a strange way — the author himself.
Much is at stake: it’s not just his late mother, or Flynn’s own demons and questions about art and who he is, but it’s also his dad and the whole problem of homelessness and this threat that all of us are only a few steps away from oblivion — or death. Imagine the day Flynn took the fancy Hollywood director to Boston, to see the kind of men he had worked with, who his father had become, who Flynn himself had nearly become. He writes, “I point out the signs. Most of the homeless are like this guy, I say — invisible — my father was like this guy. I tell him that the one thing I don’t want is to stere...read more