Reviewed: The Ticking Is the Bomb by Nick Flynn

(W.W. Norton, 2010) 281 p.
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll

Nick Flynn’s first memoir bore a brutal title: Another Bullshit Night In Suck City. It earned it, unwinding the story of Flynn’s suicidal mother and transient father, the latter of whom would eventually cross paths with Flynn at a homeless shelter in Boston. Flynn told an oftentimes harrowing story with a poet’s precision, and made a deeply personal account resonate across progressively larger canvases.  The struggles of one father and son subtly provided a context for struggles on an urban and, ultimately, national level.  The Ticking Is The Bomb also boasts on its cover the “a memoir” tag. But it’s a very different kind of book, told through fragments that converge on one another in odd ways. Chief among Flynn’s concerns here are his impending fatherhood and his horror at being a citizen of a country that engages in torture.

The Ticking Is the Bomb’s structure loops through time. Flynn revisits his childhood experiences with his mother, and reveals what has become of his father since the events described in Another Bullshit Night…. Parts of this book deal with Flynn’s higher profile since his earlier memoir: some are framed as a reaction to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch’s Standard Operating Procedure is critiqued as well. In some ways, it’s a continuation of Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, in others, it’s a deconstruction of it. Thematically, it’s arguably closer to Rick Moody’s The Black Veil — particularly to the conclusions about guilt that Moody reaches towards the end of his own memoir.

The immediacy of The Ticking Is The Bomb may work against it in the long run; if the issues that Flynn concerns himself with here are still discussed, its vitality won’t be in question. If not, however, the book may come to feel out of balance: eternal questions of commitment, fatherhood, and fidelity contrasting unevenly with issues far more specific to the Bush 43 era. But presently, those issues are still with us, those debates are open, and Flynn’s reaction to them seems perfectly understandable.