This is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire
by Nick Flynn
(Norton, 2020)

The American Baby Boomers who once worshiped Elvis and the Rolling Stones have now found a new passion: writing memoirs. Perhaps some of these Boomers who grew up in the wealthiest country in the world and enjoyed the fruits of a post-war boom economy might squeeze enough tragedy and triumph out of their lives to actually merit writing a memoir. Here we have Nick Flynn’s third.

This is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire is the latest memoir from Nick Flynn. Flynn’s childhood seems to be a series of relentless traumatic events one right after another, but after 60 years, a statute of limitations should be invoked. He made it to his late twenties before seeking the comfort of a therapist’s couch, and has continued going to twelve-steps, marriage counselors (three years worth!), and more therapists ever since. If there’s been any improvement from it, he doesn’t reveal it here; perhaps it’s just another addiction.

Flynn has a unique talent of getting trauma out of the mundane. His grandfather, a wealthy wool importer, gave Flynn’s mother a bag of wool to make a sweater for the boy. Over the next couple of years, he keeps noticing the bag, sitting there, not knitted into a sweater. It’s not the highest grade of wool, Nick notices, which causes even more anguish. When his mother, who doesn’t know how to knit, finally makes it into a sweater, Nick laments how the sleeves eventually stretched out and holes wore through the elbows. It’s easy to imagine that the sweater is still in a box of mementos to this day. The grandfather invited the Flynns to lunch at his mansion once a month or so, but then it became less and less over time. How stingy.

It’s expected that any memoirist would write often of their mother, and Flynn certainly does, as he’s never recovered from the tragedy of his mother’s suicide. But it gets downright weird when at age 35, he goes off to find all her ex-boyfriends to ask them how they found out she died. He even tracks one all the way down in Florida, where the ex-boyfriend tells him that the house fire that occurred when Nick was a child was actually an arson set up by his mother to get the insurance money. There could be some doubt cast upon that claim, however; she did not buy a new house with the insurance money, they simply cleaned up the one that burned and moved right back in.

As is the wont with people who live in a perpetual state of victimhood, a couple of times he puts the blame for much of his misfortune on someone else. First, his wife when he says she left him “back there, alone, that she never offered a life line out.” Another time on his mother when he says he wanted to make it easy for his child, “something my mother never did.” That somewhat contradicts himself at another point when Flynn says, “I always said I made it through my childhood because I felt loved…”

Parenting can be a challenge for anyone, but Flynn, now a parent himself, has a harder go of it than most. Whenever the occasion arises that he must yell at his daughter, he breaks down in tears, “I’m trying, I’m really trying!” (and breaks down again when his daughter asks if a certain poem is true). Certainly, his therapists and all of the self-improvement books he reads would advise against this, but what’s better than a parent wailing to the heavens as he struggles to be perfect? Oftentimes, he tells his therapists of dreams he’s had, asking about their symbolism, but one can’t help but wonder if they’re just the dreams of someone who ate too much spicy food before going to bed.

Flynn makes reference to grinding poverty growing up in Scituate, Massachusetts. Yet he is somehow able to afford to buy a motorcycle and then another one after he wrecks the first. He says hates the rich, even once taking his daughter to an Occupy Wall Street protest. Flynn was able to afford round-trip tickets for a European vacation for him and his pal Doug, but only after finding a good deal. Lucky him. Both he and his brother were able to attend college; there’s no mention of whether it was on scholarship.

“You can survive anything if you believe that one person in the world is wild about you,” Flynn remarks toward the end of this 278-page pity party. Here’s to those who have even less than Flynn as they try to survive, too.

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