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 stereotype ‘the homeless.’” And indeed Flynn takes care in his bio not to use the phrase; he calls people who use sheltering services “folks who found themselves without a fixed address.”
We forgive him when he parses language so carefully, and in general accord him gravitas, because this is his third memoir in 10 years and the guy can write like a motherfucker — in paragraph-length chapters, in luminous sentences that go on for half a page. All of it is embedded with research and literary references — pages and pages of which make up a final index, listing everything from new brain research at UC Berkeley to close readings of Sontag’s On Photography. Years ago when Flynn was getting high, when he couldn’t have written anything, really, he says he began taking photographs every day, imagining that someday he would look through them and that maybe they would help him make sense: “They were like the pushups one does in prison — meant not so much for today, but more for the day of release.” By now, Flynn is in shape, his mind and writing taut and quick, as all these years he has been working so hard to answer the question of how to remember, how to do it better.
Like a moth, Flynn returns again and again to a historic family of German craftsmen who made lifelike flowers from glass. In the late 19th century, these recreations were incredibly important to scientists and to people who appreciated beauty, but as photography took hold — a much more accurate portrayal of our world — the value of beautiful fake flowers decreased. The author first encounters the glass creations in a museum in Boston, one of his fondest memories of being with his mom. “We wonder why anyone would spend their lives recreating the world around them,” Flynn writes. “Perhaps this forces us to ask ourselves, in this dimly lit room, how we spend our days.”
It’s not like any of us, Flynn seems to say, could pretend we’re really in control — not the German flower-makers, whose demise would come; least of all Flynn’s dad, who reveled in drink and never achieved much more than one draft of a rejected novel; nor Flynn himself, who writes entire books about not knowing. (Darkly, his mom was the only one who ever really took control — but in death, she’s powerless again, shaped by others.)
At a certain point in The Reenactments, one might begin to worry, as I did. After a therapist appointment, Flynn is feeling off-kilter:
A woman jumps in front of my bike, holding a small red sign up to me, which I cannot make out. Get out of the movie, she yells. I slow down, look around. Movie? It looks like I am simply in New York on a Saturday morning. It seems impossible — is everyone in the whole city in this movie except me? I look around for cameras, the lights, anything. Get out of the movie, she yells again.
What exactly are we, am I, getting into? What I mean is — is this film, will it be, more glass flower, or stuffed ape? That is, am I hoping to take something that was (my mother, her death) and present it as I’d hoped it would be? Or am I taking something that was, and making something out of it that will last forever? Am I reenacting a — her — death, or am I hoping to bring her back? Will Julianne embody my mother, or will my mother embody Julianne? Am I here to try to line up the physics of the world, to recreate what happened, as accurately as possible, in the hope of releasing some hidden energy, in the hope of finding a hinge that will open a door to some truth as yet uncovered? Edgar Morin writes: There are two ways to conceive of the cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. The problem of reality? I always thought the problem was, simply, within me.
If it were up to Flynn, he says, the film would have consisted entirely of the moment he first encounters his father, the self-proclaimed best writer in America who is no such thing and instead is a drunk seeking a bed in a homeless shelter. In that moment of admitting his father into the shelter, Flynn says he/we can see everything there is to see. But who is this “we”? One memorable instance of the word comes late in the book, when Flynn talks about the film crew, and at last includes himself.
He takes ownership of the project but it’s almost too painful, it seems, to recount the moment when Flynn first shows his diminished father a copy of the film. The aged man is disheveled and confused, now living in a convalescent home, and in the common room the other residents are being led in song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” The men and women can barely keep up, while father and son can barely hear the film. But they can hear enough. “Where did you get this?” his father asks suddenly, as if bitten; the movie has done him some kind of harm — though it is not entirely clear whom to blame.
When the credits roll, the father asks, “What will I do?”
“You’ll eat lunch,” Flynn says.
Writing about oneself is not without risk — or reward. Your parents have become characters? You might make some money. You might make a beautiful thing. But even if you get De Niro to play along, sooner or later he picks up another script.