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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn (2004)
Being Flynn directed by Paul Weitz (2012)
The Reenactments by Nick Flynn (2013)
The book is a memoir about Nick’s life. Interwoven, is the story of his father, Jonathon, and what led both of them to a homeless shelter. Nick was working there, and one night his dad comes in for a bed. This starts a relationship of sorts between the two of them and Nick shares his story of getting sober and trying to come to terms with his childhood.
Thoughts on the book
This book combines two topics I find really interesting-addiction (both being an addict yourself, plus having a relationship with someone who is an addict of some kind) and not knowing one or both of your birth parents. These both tend to be heavier topics, but they can be so interesting to read about in the psychological sense, as well as making for compelling stories. They are both topics I can relate to in some ways, so I’m sure that’s why I find them interesting to read about. I was raised by my birth parents and still see them regularly today. However, I didn’t know any of my extended family up until a year or two ago. Not knowing your birth parents is a much bigger deal, but not having a connection to extended family still impacted my in ways I wasn’t even aware of at times.
I didn’t realize that I like learning about people who don’t know one or both birth parents till a couple months ago. I noticed it was a theme that kept coming up in shows or movies I would watch as well as books I would read. Even this book was just a coincidence, and I didn’t seek it out because it had to do with a guy who didn’t know his father. I actually picked it simply because I wanted to cover a Paul Dano movie!
Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and its writing style. Nick Flynn’s first published work was a book of poems, and here he writes very poetically. He had various relationships with interesting people and brings them to life with his writing. His mother, his father, the various father figures he had in his life, his friends, his father’s friends, etc. Along with addiction and having an estranged parent, this book also deals with suicide and being homeless, so a lot of intense topics here.
There is a section where he is talking about what it must have been like to have lived hundreds of years ago, when if you had an alcoholic father, and he was the “village drunk” or the “village idiot”. Even though Nick is describing what it would have been like back then, it’s still the same emotions and situations he himself was dealing with in regard to his father, especially when they were both at the shelter. He goes into not just the emotions of the child, but how others look at you based on the actions of the alcoholic parent. It reads,
“They would look into your eyes to see if they were his eyes, they would notice if you were to stumble slightly as you stepped into a shop, they would remember that your father too had started with promise, like you. They would know he was a burden, they could read the struggle in your face, they would watch as you passed and nod, knowing that around the next corner your father had fallen and pissed himself. And they would watch you watch him, note the days you simply kept walking, as if you didn’t see, note the days you knelt beside him, tried to get him to rise, to prop him up. If they were friends and they came by your house they couldn’t help but notice whether you had an extra room, or whether your own situation seemed precarious, marginal. And they might not say anything but they would take it in and wonder, either way it meant something. If this was two hundred years ago you left the village maybe once a month, to bring whatever it was you grew or fabricated—onions or oil, wine or cloth—to a distant market to sell, only to return in a day or two to the village, and you might get the sense, perhaps rightly, that there was nowhere else on earth for you to be, that to leave the village would be akin to banishment, to enter into a lifetime of wandering, to become open to speculation that you’d abandoned your father to his fate, turned your back, left him to die. Taken and not given back. For if you are not responsible for your own father, who is? Who is going to pick him up off the ground if not you?”
There is also another brief line in regard to having a relationship with an addict which reads, “And though he knew it was only the whiskey talking, he also knew that the whiskey talked daily.”
There are other great passages such as this that I will share as we go along, so you can get a feel for the kind of writer Flynn is.
In 2013, Flynn published a second memoir about what it was like to turn Suck City into a movie. After having read Suck City and watching the movie, ending with this book was a nice way to tie things up. Flynn was an integral part in making this into a movie and was there every day it was filmed. The Reenactments gives interesting insight into the making of the movie, and also talks about the deeper aspects of experiencing traumas, seeing those traumas reenacted, and about memories and the brain.
He and director Paul Weitz went to Boston to see the shelter and other places Flynn writes about. As well as of course visiting his father. They are telling Jonathon they are making a movie and it reads, “It will be about your life, I tell him. My father, seemingly, is not greatly impressed—he’s always expected a movie to be made of his life, his life is fascinating, he is trying to tell us about it now.”
Years later, when they have cast DeNiro as Jonathon, DeNiro, Weitz and Flynn go visit Jonathon together. By this time though, Jonathon has changed a lot since the days of Suck City. He writes, “I warn them that my father is much diminished, that he is not the same man as the man De Niro will be portraying—the menace is gone, he’s grown old, lost his fight, toothless now.” It was interesting to read this book, published almost 10 years later, and learning how his dad has changed in those years.
When turning this into a movie, they knew they would have to change the name because they couldn’t have the swear word in the title of a movie. They went through different ideas, like Another Night, or Welcome to Suck City (that title in particular test audiences did not like at all) and ultimately had to stray from the book title and decided on Being Flynn.
The title of the book is a phrase his father says in the book, and it definitely grabs your attention. I think Being Flynn is a fine title for the movie. It might not be as grabbing, but it’s fitting. Nick struggles with his identity, and Jonathon will say how Nick is part of him, so struggling to accept who you are and where and who, you come from. There is a line in the book that talks about the their last name, saying, “The name Flynn comes from the Irish word flan, which translated roughly as “ruddy” or “red-faced.” The name Flynn, it seems, derives from a general term for a commoner, a bog-dweller, those distinctly outside the castle walls. More akin to “hey, you” than “my good lord.”
Director Paul Weitz approached Flynn to turn this into a movie back when the book came out, and they worked on it for several years before it became a reality. The book covers heavy topics and can feel heavy at times. But the movie felt even more intense in some ways. It also felt like a very artistic movie to me, which was fitting since the book is also very artistic in its poetic way.
There is a line in movies between being over the top emotional and being powerful. This movie kind of balances between the two at times, but I think it stays on the powerful side. I hate when movies are over the top and basically trying to force you to cry. This movie has some intense scenes, but it didn’t feel like it was being done simply to be intense and get a reaction from the audience.
I did think the last 15 minutes or so felt rushed, and I think it could have benefited from being another 15 or 20 minutes longer.
There are some scenes and some characters that are different from the book. When reading about when he and the director spent time in Boston with the homeless and with Jonathon, you learn that the scenes that may not have been in Suck City, were inspired by things they witnessed or people they met when he and the director went back together.
Paul Dano is incredible as Nick Flynn. He is such an amazing actor; I don’t know how he hasn’t won an Oscar yet!
Robert DeNiro plays the father, Jonathon Flynn, and gives a stellar performance. The Reenactments gives you an inside look into all the work both DeNiro and Dano did in preparation for their roles and how dedicated they are to their work.
Olivia Thirlby plays Denise, and she is perfect in this. Her character is a hodgepodge of girls Nick had known and dated, and she said she felt less pressure not playing someone who actually existed.
Julianne Moore was cast as Nick’s mom, Jody Flynn. Moore is a wonderful actress and is great here.
In the book, in real life, Nick does a year of college and meets a girl named Emily. They date for a semester, then after Christmas break, they drift apart, though they are in the same social circles. One night at a party, he hears her telling people a story about a guy who has been a longtime friend of her dads and all the antics this alcoholic gets himself into. Nick recognizes some of the stories and realizes it is his dad. He pulls her aside and tells her this. They end up dating again soon after they realize this connection they have. When Emily’s parents find out she is dating Jonathon’s son, they try to set them up to meet by inviting both to their house for dinner. Nick doesn’t go for it though.
He and Emily are together for nine years, even after he drops out of college and starts working at the shelter. He cheats on her with a coworker from the shelter, which Emily finds out about. She tells him he needs to go to therapy if they are going to stay together.
When he goes to a therapist, he is told he is an alcoholic. Funny enough, when he tells Emily he was told this, she says that it’s nonsense and he drinks the same as anyone else. They do end up breaking up at some point, because, “She’s ready to start a family. I’m ready to curl up in a ball for a few more years.”
The movie shows Nick cheating on a girl he is with at the start of the movie. Then later, he starts dating Denise, who is the one that gets him a job at the shelter. She is the one that tells him he needs help, though she says he has an alcohol/drug problem, and they break up because of it.
I wish the movie would have included the Emily storyline. They had a brief scene with her dad, “steady” Ray, and it is just a crazy coincidence they came across each other. I’m guessing, based on what was said in The Reenactments, they created the Denise character, who is a mix of people Nick knew, because they couldn’t risk being sued by the actual girl he dated.
The book of course goes more in depth into Nick’s childhood. We learn more about some of the guys his mom dated, and we see the kind of influence they had on him. The movie showed Travis briefly, who had fought in Vietnam and was a little crazy. His mom actually married him, and they were together for a few years until he left them. Later, when Nick was in his later teens, she dated a guy who was dealing drugs. Nick told his mom he wanted to work with him, and he got started trying to work his way up “the organization”. He quits though when he gets accepted to college.
The movie doesn’t show too much of his mom, aside from showing how much she worked and how much she was trying her best to be a good mom to Nick. In real life, she drank a fair amount, though still maintained a job and such. She was into some illegal stuff as well and dated some shady guys. The way he talks about the houses they lived in makes them seem like ramshackle places, whereas the movie shows their house looking pretty nice. Even with her problems in real life, he also talks a lot in the book about what a good mom she was and the bond the three of them had.
I say three of them, because Nick also had an older brother, whom the movie got rid of. The brother didn’t play a huge part in the book, so it makes sense they didn’t have him in the movie. The book says that when the brother was a teen, he met with their dad, but the dad just talked about himself the whole time and from then on, the brother had zero interest in ever seeing him again.
In The Reenactments you find out more about how Jody’s suicide effected Nick. He of course talks about it in Suck City, but for the most part that book seems more focused on the relationship with his dad. Through the years though, he has been able to heal from the wounds caused by his dad because he has been able to talk and get to know his dad. He isn’t able to get that closure with the trauma from his mom’s death, because she is no longer here. He talks about how he doesn’t pray to “God” because, he says, “I believe that anything I can name, anything I can understand, cannot possibly help me, not with this. What is this? Everything.” This line bugs me a bit, because it seems prideful to think that God isn’t big enough to be able to help you with your personal pains and trauma.
It is heartbreaking though to read about the suffering that is caused by suicide. Watching Moore replay his mother’s death is talked about in length in the book and this scene in the book and movie was very sad to say the least.
His brother came to set on some of the days DeNiro was shooting, “just because he has no desire to meet our father does not mean he has no desire to meet Robert De Niro”, but he can’t bring himself to the days Moore is filming because that wound is still too raw.
Jonathon also had a second wife with whom he had a daughter. Nick remembers meeting her once, when they were both young. Then after the release of Suck City, she found him and they reconnected.
Harbor Street/Pine Street
In real life the shelter he worked at was called Pine Street, but in the movie they switched the name of Harbor Street. In The Reenactments, Flynn says, “In the film Pine Street will be renamed Harbor Street, a lawyer at Pine Street insisted, which I don’t understand —my father is a success story, he made it off the streets alive.”
The movie shows an accurate portrayal of working there as described in the book. However, in the movie he seems to work there a relatively short time and quits when he goes to college. In the book, he was there for like ten years. On and off, but he always ended up coming back. His dad shows up at Pine Street for the first time when Nick had been working there for three years already.
In the book, he talks about how when people find out he works at the shelter, they will ask him questions about the homeless. He says, “It becomes clear to me that I’m supposed to console those asking these questions, that they need me to say something that will make them feel better, confirm that there’s nothing for them to do, that the problem is as inscrutable as Africa. Or perhaps they are afraid that homelessness seems more and more to be a fluid state, and they would prefer it to be something one is born into, like India and their Untouchables. Sometimes I point out that eighty percent of the homeless are invisible, like the proverbial iceberg…”
When Nick does quit Pine Street, he doesn’t say goodbye to everyone the way the movie shows. He just doesn’t show up at the end of summer the way he usually does. He goes to college as the movie shows. College for the second time, because when he was young, he went for that one year. He then goes on to be a teacher where he says a lot of his students are living in shelters or out of cars.
In the movie, Lili Taylor plays Joy, a. character from the book as well. Fun fact, in real life, she is married to the real Nick Flynn! They started dating in 2004 and got married in 2009. They had a daughter together who was born in 2008, when Flynn was almost 50. The movie shows him having a daughter at a much younger age. The real Flynn was scared for a long time about being a parent, seeing as he didn’t have the best father role model growing up.
In The Reenactments, Flynn says, “My father never came to hear me read my poems, I never invited him. In this scene Dano will sit in a chair and read…At the end of this scene (which will be the end of the film), I will introduce my father to my wife and child (which I have done), and I will let my father hold his granddaughter (which he has done). The film will suggest that I figured out how to write a book and become a father in a couple years—in reality it will take ten years for the book to come out, and ten more years for Maeve to appear.”
He also talks about his wife (Lili Taylor) being in the movie at the end of the book and it’s a really beautiful chapter which is a great end to The Reenactments.
In book and movie, to get away from seeing Jonathon in the shelter, Nick switches to working in the Van. He and another guy work from 9pm to 5am, driving around, helping the homeless that didn’t make it to the shelter. Eventually, Jonathon is barred from Pine Street because he just gets too out of hand. Nick reflects, “I joined the Van, in part, to get away from my father, who had, for a couple years at that point, been sleeping in the shelter. Outside, in the frigid night air, I felt I could breathe again. Within a few months, though, my father got himself barred from the shelter and ended up sleeping on the streets—I was back where I started.”
One of the many things I liked about this book is that it shows you the perspective of someone who is dealing with an active alcoholic, but also gives you the perspective of being the addict. Nick is both and has to find a way to come to peace with himself and with his relationship with his alcoholic father.
In the movie, Nick invites his dad to stay with him for the weekend, however Jonathon ends up leaving. When he asks why Nick had never invited him to stay before, Nick says that if you try and help a drowning man, you might drown with him.
This line is from the book, the full version being, “Sometimes I’d see my father, walking past my building on his way to another nowhere. I could have given him a key, offered a piece of my floor. A futon. A bed. But I never did. If I let him inside I would become him, the line between us would blur, my own slow-motion car wreck would speed up. The slogan on the side of a moving company truck read TOGETHER WE ARE GOING PLACES—modified by a vandal or a disgruntled employee to read TOGETHER WE ARE GOING DOWN. If I went to the drowning man the drowning man would pull me under. I couldn’t be his life raft.”
In real life, Nick never invited his father to live with him. Once he is sober, he reflects,
“… I could have found him, taken his hand, led him home. Instead I locked my door, got high, slept until the sun entered me again. The Zen master says that we are adrift in a river of forgetfulness, which still, some days, doesn’t sound like the worst place to be.”
In The Reenactments, he reflects on how he felt towards his father then versus now and writes, “By the time I made it to my mid-thirties my father had lost some of his bite, he’d become someone who genuinely needed my help or else he would go under (we will all go under one day, I know, but we don’t have to die out on the streets). By the time I was thirty-five I was able to offer him my hand at times, but when I was still in my twenties my father could destroy me, at least this was how it appeared.”
Paul Weitz explained that it was necessary to have those scenes between the two of them, in Nick’s apartment, and outside it, because it is what the audience needs. It provides a sense of closure in some ways. It also gives the chance for the audience to hear about the guilt Nick feels about his mother’s death because the unfinished story he had written, and she found. He started writing a story of a woman who works all the time, it was indeed about his mom, but she read it before he was able to finish the story by saying how much the son loved the mom and knew how hard she was trying.
Speaking of Nick’s writing, in the movie there is the scene where Denise comes across a notebook of Nick’s and reads a poem of his. This is straight from the book, it’s a few pages where it is just listing phrases used for drinking or drugs. An excerpt from this section reads,
“…Take the edge off I say. That’s better I say. Loaded I say. Wasted. Looped. Lit. Off my ass. Befuddled. Reeling. Tanked. Punch-drunk. Mean drunk. Maintenance drunk. Sloppy drunk happy drunk weepy drunk blind drunk dead drunk. Serious drinker. Hard drinker. Lush. Drink like a fish. Boozer. Booze hound. Absorb. Rummy. Alkie. Sponge. Sip. Sot. Sop. Then muddled. Then maudlin. Then woozy. Then clouded. What day is it? Do you know me? Have you seen me? When did I start? Did I ever stop? Slurring. Reeling. Staggering. Overserved they say. Drunk as a skunk they say. Falling down drunk. Crawling down drunk. Drunk & disorderly. I say high tolerance. I say high capacity. I say social lubricant. They say protective custody. Sozzled soused sloshed. Polluted. Blitzed. Shattered. Zonked. Ossified. Annihilated. Fossilized. Stinko. Blotto. Legless. Smashed…”
It just goes on and one like that. I just really liked that section of the book for some reason. It just flowed really well, and also makes you realize how many terms and phrases we have for drinking and shows the obsession of the addict.
That section I just talked about is a good example of the unique writing style Flynn has throughout this book. There is another part where Jonathon tells him he is dressing up as Santa for the Salvation Army and will be one of the guys with the buckets for the donations, ringing the bell. Nick says how he sees these Santa’s all the time, and now wonders which one he passes could be his dad. It then cuts to a section where it is a play involving five Santa’s. Kind of random, but I enjoyed it.
In the book, he often mentions how Jonathon never asks how he, Nick, is doing, and only talks about himself. He was full of self-delusions and trying to convince others of these delusions. After Nick leaves the shelter, he will visit his dad with a video camera and record his father during their discussions. He also brings his video camera when tracking down the 10 men his mother dated and interviews them. He asks them just two questions, “How did you meet Jody? How did you find out about her death?” and from those two questions a lot would be said. He also interview’s people that had known his dad.
In the book and movie, Jonathon tells Nick that he thinks the reason Jody killed herself was because she hated herself. The book reads, “Scotty, his (Jonathon’s) buddy from Portsmouth, had a similar insight, though it was about my father—I always felt your father didn’t like himself a lot, that he had a self-destructive side wider than most. That he carried around a sense of failure. You kids were an important part of his life, he would read to me the letters he wrote you, yet it always seemed like he was punishing himself for his failures as a father. Eventually he made a business of being a failure—if he was close to success, he would sabotage it. The one role he held on to was that of being a great undiscovered writer— it allowed him to lash out in anger, it became his job to straighten the world out, to point to exactly how he’d been mistreated. The art world allowed him to get away with extravagant and excessive behavior, it encouraged it. His life became a raging performance piece, scripted by Jonathan Flynn. This allowed him to stay in control of something in his life. It became all presentation.”
I think the movie made Jonathon somewhat more likeable. Just a bit, because there seem to be more scenes where they are able to have a fairly normal conversation and maybe bond a bit. Though in both, he stays delusional all the way. Though it seems getting off the streets helped some of course because being homeless certainly messes with you mentally as well as physically.
After he moves into the apartment, Nick will try and avoid visiting in the first 15 days of the month. His dad gets his disability check on the 1st, and the following two weeks he drinks more since he has more money. As the weeks go on, he has less money and therefore can’t spend as much money on alcohol.
Speaking of his apartment, in the book it talks about how cluttered his apartment was and had a wet dog smell. When Nick is visiting him, Jonathon tells him that a friend from the streets had stayed the night not long ago. The book goes on, “It’s a form of generosity that my father invites a street person, a friend, up for the night. He’s even offered it to me, or my brother, anytime we need a place, something I never offered him when he was living on the streets. But in his room there is no place, unless I sat upright in a straight backed chair all night, or stretched out on the bit of floor beside his single bed, in the path to the bathroom. Or, the horror, crawled in bed with him. I would first sleep on a bench, or under a bush. I would risk rats and mayhem before I would spend a night in his room.”
A bit later, he introduces Weitz to Jonathon. They are in Jonathon’s apartment which is a mess as usual, and Nick writes of the experience, “This is the way it always is, this is what I imagine Paul wants to see, though it seems even sadder, even shabbier, with him here. Am I really simply letting my father live out his life like this? Do I have a choice?” This line goes back to the quote about living back in the day with your dad as the town drunk and the responsibility you feel for them and the way you worry others judge you for what you do or don’t do to help.
In The Reenactments, we learn that Jonathon is moved from his apartment to a senior living facility where he is sober for the first time since he was in prison. He is losing his memory though and Nick has to remind him of things repeatedly. When the movie is on DVD, he takes it to the senior living to watch with his dad. Throughout the movie, he has to remind his dad that they are watching actors play themselves. The scene where DeNiro (Jonathon) shows up at Pine Street for the first time, Nick says as they watch, “He works at Pine Street, I tell my father, he’s upset that his father is staying there. I would think so, my father says. Why? I ask. It’s a tough situation, he says. These few words are more than we have ever spoken to each other about what those days were like for him, for us.” Jonathon also goes on to say how that was a hard time, being homeless. Something he has never admitted before.
Book or Movie
Part way through this movie I was really pulled into the story and was ready to claim it as my new favorite movie. However, the last 15 ish minutes seemed rushed. Like they wanted to just hurry and wrap it up and give the audience the closure it was desiring. Nick’s addiction seemed to happen suddenly, then as quickly as he was an addict, he was getting sober. I get they wanted his time at the homeless shelter and his dad to be the focal point. But his addictions started when he was like 13 and just got worse and worse. The movie didn’t seem to show this.
I do like that even though you get more closure in the movie than you do the book, they still don’t give it the Hollywood happily ever after. The book feels like it just kind of ends, so I get why the director would want a more solid ending. Even though I have my complaints, it is still a great movie with incredible acting and directing.
The book is one I will definitely be reading again, and probably sooner rather than later. I think there is a lot to pick up on in the book and going back through a second time would be beneficial. I will also watch the movie again at some point, but it probably won’t be till down the road.
The movie is a solid adaptation, even so, I still would have to say the book wins on this one. It is a unique, interesting, thought provoking memoir. I really could go on and on about it, but you really should just go and read it for yourself.