Nick Flynn's new memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb, is by turns, and often simultaneously, self-reflective and socially charged. A poet by training, Flynn writes short chapters with impressive agility and cultural command, drawing subtle analogies between Greek myths, zombie movies, photography, Buddhism, and the anxieties of becoming a parent. Anyone familiar with his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, knows that Flynn also has a live-wire story on his hands: That book alternately circles and probes his postcollegiate years working at a homeless shelter in Boston, where his dad—a drunk gone off the rails—winds up. But Flynn never succumbs to sensationalism there; instead, he invites the reader into his confusion, and powerfully displays the ways that writing can (and in some cases can't) navigate crisis. The Ticking Is the Bomb's insights are even more generous and outward-looking. It's personal, sure: Here, Flynn returns to his father, vividly recalls his mother (who committed suicide in her forties), and nervously describes his girlfriend's pregnancy. But like Stephen Elliott's recent The Adderall Diaries, which combines memoir with true-crime reportage, Flynn's book yokes its autobiographical elements to issues of broader significance, specifically U.S.-sanctioned torture in the years since 9/11, a topic the author becomes so concerned about that he goes to Istanbul to meet victims of U.S. military abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Each of the book's distinct strains is rendered in prose that's harrowing and wry, vulnerable and charismatic, tough-minded and panicked. His reflections on America's modern war crimes radiate with a renewed sense of urgency. (It's hard to imagine a supporter of waterboarding reading this book, and one could argue that Flynn is preaching to the choir, but one of his more disturbing questions is: Who is the choir, anyway? PEN, the literary and human-rights organization, presented an award to Sam Harris for his book The End of Faith, which advocates the use of torture). Other chapters are a welcome and sometimes funny addition to the literature of contemporary fatherhood, particularly a seeming contradiction—vast fears and deep bonds—that frequently accompanies it. Throughout, Flynn reveals a koan-like talent for articulating a deep moral stance even as he ambitiously charts his sense of being lost.
As you read, what becomes particularly impressive is Flynn's talent to establish dialogue between his separate storylines. He mentions Proteus, the Greek mythical figure who, when held, changes his form relentlessly before revealing the truth you seek; this becomes metaphor for both a faulty justification for torture (hurt someone long enough and they'll tell you what you want to know) and the elusive nature of self-knowledge (no matter how long you stare at yourself, segments of your character remain in the shadows). Flynn jump-cuts between Plato, Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure, Dante, the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, and a series of deeply personal chapters: about his problems with romantic commitment, his love of swimming, his past of addiction, his stint as an assistant to mafia drug runners, and his daughter's birth. As he moves back and forth, all of these layers begin to overlap and converge, producing a portrait of a writer who is deeply aware of how difficult it is to grasp truths—about himself, his parents, and violence—but who doggedly pursues them anyway.
There's a touch of Telemachus in Flynn ("trouble has struck my house—a double blow"), and of the stranded Odysseus too (the author lives, for part of the book, on a houseboat). In this sense, The Ticking Is the Bomb is an adventure story about a man trying to find a home, though its tour of the self also makes it much more than that. The child psychoanalyst D.W. Winncott, whom Flynn mentions in both of his memoirs, once wrote that adventure stories provide excitement but often reveal a "shallow personality," someone "not conscious of the inner depressive anxiety from which he has fled." He concludes: "One turns with relief from such writers to others who can tolerate depressive anxiety and doubt." In Flynn, we find a unique combination: an author whose work bristles with incident and travel, but who also doggedly confronts his fears. This multidimensional quality is rare, motley, and rewarding. The Ticking Is the Bomb is a catalog of personal and political horrors—and a bracing example of how to think amid them.
Michael Miller edits the Books section at Time Out New York.