By CASEY SEILER, Entertainment editor
First published: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Broken homes
Author chronicles surviving a father's tragic legacy

Nick Flynn's internal magnet doesn't pull him back to Boston the way it used to.

Instead, the author and poet divides his time between the University of Houston, where he teaches one semester out of the year, and his new house in Athens, close by the Hudson River in Greene County. Athens has "easy access to New York, and yet you're out of the city," Flynn said over the phone earlier this week. "Most of the people I love are in New York, so it seemed like a good way to be not in the middle of (the city), but have it accessible."

"As time goes by, I know fewer and fewer people in Boston," Flynn said, giving away his native region with every rounded vowel. "I have a couple of good friends there, and my father."

Flynn's father, Jonathan, is an alcoholic, a failed novelist, a onetime forger and car thief, a fugitive parent and husband and a former member of the legions of America's homeless. Nick Flynn's new memoir, "Another Bull---- Night in Suck City" (W.W. Norton, $23.95, 347 pages), follows the threads of memory and blood linking the two men. In an age when the literary genre that might be referred to as toxic autobiography seems to have run out of sins worth cataloging, Flynn's exquisitely modulated tone and richly allusive language make his family history a very different kind of American tragedy.

At the heart of "Suck City" are the years that Nick Flynn spent working at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter in Boston, where his own estranged father would often show up in search of a bed for the night. Jonathan Flynn had abandoned his wife and two sons in the early 1960s and embarked on a rough transit that included prison, increasingly intense periods of drunkenness and, finally, life on the streets.

Nick Flynn had his own problems. In addition to drugs and alcohol, there were the deep psychic wounds left by his mother's suicide when he was in his early 20s. In the book, Flynn resists the urge to overplay the primal tragedy of encountering your father as a near-stranger. What do you call the man who abandoned you and sent your family into a decades-long tailspin?

"I'd only call him 'Jonathan,' really," Flynn said. "And maybe in some sort of intimate circumstance I'd say, 'My father came to the shelter tonight.' But ... I don't really call him my father to his face; I call him Jonathan."

Finding a structure

At the end of the '80s, Flynn sought help, cleaned up and began transmuting his story into poetry -- including the 2000 collection "Some Ether" -- and other projects, among them an acclaimed 2001 piece about his father on NPR's "This American Life." When he began constructing his memoir, Flynn first got the narrative in place and then spent two years trying to find the story's structure.

"I wanted it to be something that people would want to keep reading," Flynn said. "I know it's a difficult subject matter -- homelessness itself is probably not the sort of subject that causes books to fly off the shelves.

"I didn't have any desire for self-pity or sentimentality or ponderousness, or some sort of suggestion that I have any sort of answer to any of these questions I bring up," Flynn said. "I wanted reading it to be more of an experience than a listing of information or the recounting of a story ... so (readers) come to their own conclusion about what they would do in a similar circumstance, or in their relationships with their fathers, or in thinking about homelessness, or questions of responsibility or biology."

Inevitable progression

In its intensely personal tone, Flynn's book is no polemic on the fate of the underclass (and the author went to great pains to excise references to Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton from its pages). But it does join a short list of books on a problem that seems more than a decade removed from the front pages. "Suck City" is, in fact, one of two new books that look at a parent's homelessness: In a strange publishing quirk, Flynn's book hits stores the same month as Tara Bray Smith's "West of Then," which follows her estranged mother's descent into addiction and homelessness in Honolulu.

The appearance of these stories, Flynn said, "might be sort of inevitable, perhaps. When I began working with the homeless 20 years ago ... you'd be lucky if there were a million (homeless Americans). And by the end of the '80s there were 2 million, and now I hear there's 4 million. That's a lot of people, and they're all related to somebody."

Flynn is keenly aware that the line separating the poor from the homeless is often an illusory one. "Most of the people I knew in Boston were what I'd call 'invisibly homeless.' They weren't advertising it, they weren't the stereotypical guy pushing a big cart with shiny clothes," he said. " ... They were denying that they were homeless, and they were hoping to get out of it quickly, and some of them did and some just sort of continued that."

Flynn's father has, with his son's assistance, managed to hold onto an apartment for more than a decade. But there is little redemption in Jonathan Flynn's story. "He's still a drinker, so he's a little unpredictable and erratic," said Flynn, who expects to see his father when his book tour brings him back to Boston later this week.

Singular title

And then there's the matter of the book's singular title, which was provided by one of Jonathan's harangues. (The book's jacket comes without the editorial elisions.)

Surely Flynn's publisher was worried the title might keep the book off the new-release table at chain stores?

"Surprisingly, they were all for it," Flynn said of W.W. Norton's reaction. "They loved the title. I kept expecting it to be pulled out from under me at any moment.

"I actually struggled with the title for a long time, because it is so out there," Flynn said. "I kept generating hundreds of titles ... and none of them fit the book. This is the best title for the book, and all I can do is apologize for that."