The circumstances of Nick Flynn’s life are grim: abandoned by his father as an infant, haunted by an addiction and the aftermath of a mother who took her own life. But The Ticking is the Bomb isn’t a misery memoir. It’s not a heartwarming tale of redemption. Flynn never casts himself as the victim. Many of the most shocking details about his life are only mentioned in passing. This is a memoir about Flynn’s fears of fatherhood and intimacy, and—somehow—his growing obsession with torture and pain. Under Flynn’s deft hand, the connections between his own personal fears, American fears of terrorist attack, and the fears of torturer and tortured alike seem plain enough, but each is made all the more urgent by the immediacy of the Abu Ghraib scandal, or the infant growing in its mother’s womb.
This is the way to tell a memoir.
He won me as a fan with, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, his first memoir, a meditation on his father and homelessness. Both that book and this one are organized in the same nonlinear fashion. You find little parenthetical dates at the start of some chapters to help you orient the chapter into the overall timeline. It sounds confusing, but he does a good job of establishing and then returning to certain characters and situations, so it works. It feels like an organic approximation of the act of reflection, or maybe what it feels like to sort through a lifetime of memories and try to make sense of it all. As far as narrative goes, this book seems like a series of failed relationships and one lingering, seemingly fragile success. He expresses his growing outrage over American torture, which eventually gives way to a slightly crazed, imploring tenacity. During the months that preceded the invasion of Iraq, I can remember arguing for peace with the same sort of growing intensity. In the end—watching the shock and awe on the network news—I remember feeling angry and powerless, totally wrung out. I remember thinking that I had to stop arguing, that I risked turning into some sort of irrational crank.
Maybe that’s what it takes.