The Book about the Movie about the Book

As I scrambled toward the center seats at BAM Rose Cinemas on Tuesday night to see “Being Flynn”, based on Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, I wondered, what if writers could answer simple questions? Tuesday was also the release date for Flynn’s most recent memoir, The Reenactments, his response to the question: what was it like being on set for the filming of his memoir?

“It took me a book to answer it,” Flynn told the crowd afterwards, in a Q & A with director, producer, and screenwriter Paul Weitz. And it took Weitz seven years, thirty drafts, and three studios to make it happen. “Being Flynn,” which came out last year in a limited release, has an all-star cast: Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore, Paul Dano, and such like.

The film is largely faithful to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City — a favorite saying of Flynn the elder, and my favorite memoir title of all time. While Nick Flynn’s life gave him every reason to write, it also gave him every reason not to: his narcissistic, fabulist father abandons him early on, and his hardworking mother kills herself after reading his first short story. In a sick twist of fate with which Flynn fans are now familiar, the site of their father-son reunion is a homeless shelter in Boston — Nick is an employee and his father is a guest.

In the memoirist vs. novelist duel, “Being Flynn” scores one for the memoirists. Why? Because if you don’t write about your own life, De Niro could never play your father. As Flynn made note, only he and Tobias Wolff share that distinction. It goes without saying that De Niro was the best part of the film. (Consolation for a bad childhood?) De Niro even met Flynn’s father, who was not impressed, as he’d told Weitz early on that only two people could play him: Dustin Hoffman or himself.

Like most, I have sat through too many book-to-film adaptations that disappoint or — let’s just say it — outright lie. Yet “Being Flynn” preserves so much of the language, it felt as if I were reading along with the film, having memorized the ‘subtitles.’ Considering I fell in love with The New Yorker excerpt “The Button Man” when I took my first creative nonfiction workshop, and have since read the memoir three times, considering that its mosaic structure influenced the shape of my own memoir and that I will teach the excerpt in a writing workshop next week, I sometimes feel like that book and I grew up together.

It’s clear in both the movie and the memoir that Flynn’s father isn’t just an absentee drunk who forges checks and likens his subsequent prison experience to Dostoyevsky’s years in the gulags of Siberia; he is also a storyteller. As is Mary Karr’s mother in The Liar’s Club, Wolff’s mother in This Boy’s Life, and Alexandra Fuller’s mother in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. While we’ve come to expect new writers from writer parents, perhaps we will come to expect memoirists from storyteller parents.

 — Erika Anderson is one half of the online editorial team at Electric Literature. The other half is here.

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