R.I.P., Jonathan Robinson Flynn
November 7, 2013 § 8 Comments
Every once in a while an obituary is itself an intriguing and engaging essay, as shown here, posted to Facebook today by Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Notice the voice, the intimate detail, the surprise, the attitude. Presumably Nick wrote this, though it was not attributed:
JONATHAN ROBINSON FLYNN 1929—2013
JONATHAN ROBINSON FLYNN, the self-proclaimed “greatest writer America has yet produced,” died on a Sunday morning at the end of October in Boston. At the time of his death he was living at Roscommon, the nursing home where he’d spent his last five years of his life.
He was the subject of his son Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which chronicled his father’s life as an absent father, a bank robber, and as a federal prisoner, as well as the five years he lived as what we now call “the working poor,” sleeping in shelters and on the streets of Boston, working day labor. He made it off the streets with the help of several social workers and organizations, including Eileen O’Brien of Elders Living at Home, Jim O’Connell of Health Care for the Homeless, The Pine Street Inn, and many others. His success in getting of the streets is a model for the current Housing First movement, which has the potential to end homelessness in America.
Jonathan Robinson Flynn was born in 1929 in Scituate, Massachusetts, and always had a complicated and contentious relationship with his own father, Edmund Flynn, although Jonathan was proud that his father had, in response to the sinking of the Titanic, invented the life raft—the Titanic only had life-boats.
A ghostly, inscrutable, charming, frustrating, narcissistic, alcoholic, damaged, and damaging presence, Nick Flynn tried to understand his father in nearly all of his writing, especially in the subsequent memoirs, The Ticking is the Bomb and The Reenactments. Jonathan spent most of his life on the East Coast, between New Hampshire and Florida, often working on docks or on fishing boats in order to support his writing and his drinking. While serving time in federal prison it is likely he was subjected to CIA-funded torture experiments, which likely contributed to his later paranoia. After prison, he remained in Boston for the last 25 years of his life.
Being Flynn, the feature film based on Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, starring Robert De Niro as Jonathan Flynn, was released in 2012. Jonathan was impressed with De Niro’s performance, and enjoyed imitating De Niro (“You are me, I made you”) as he taunted Paul Dano, his on-screen son.
At the time of his death Jonathan Flynn remained convinced he would win the Nobel Prize for “both storytelling and poetry.” His one completed novel, The Button Man, remains unpublished. Along with his son Nick, he is survived by another son, Thaddeus, as well as a daughter, Anastacia.
For no good reason he outlived both of his ex-wives.
I wonder how Thaddeus and Anastacia feel about this obituary.
While I appreciate the tremendous loss that Nick experiences at the loss of his father, I feel somewhat mortified that this obituary seems to focus on the contributions of one child to his father’s life, to the exclusion of the other influences that shaped Jonathan’s time on this planet. I wish Nick no further grief; his grief started in childhood and I hope that he finds peace from it in this life.
I suppose I must be old fashioned in that I believe that an obituary should be about honoring the dead and supporting the living– all the living– who loved him, including all the offspring and all the former spouses (one of whom, I presume, is Nick’s mother). Struggling with our parents as we mature is normal, and having a large character such as Jonathan for a parent only intensifies that struggle. I feel for Nick, and wish he could have found peace with that struggle long enough to write an obituary that lifted his father and the rest of his family in its compassion.
And, in the end, I am sorry for his loss, for his siblings’ loss, and for the grief that all of us feel when our parents leave us for parts unknown.
A generous obituary after such a challenging relationship ends. And the life raft anecdote? News to me, as well as fodder for yet one more curious metaphor of this family.
Reblogged this on We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and commented:
Of course I love it when an obituary is the subject of a blog post! Most of the obituaries I read are still formulaic. Every once in a while, you get one that reflects the complexities that make us human. This is one of them.
Reblogged this on Headed For the Ditch.
Having known Jon Flynn very well, starting with the request to be a witness at his marriage to my sister & the father of my niece, I can vouch for Nick Flynn’s obit as accurate. I could add to that & so could Nick, but why go there?
The tortured lives of his wives & children speaks volumes…..
[…] of the book is treatment of the homeless. After you read the book you should read this follow-up in Brevity. And don’t forget to follow him on Twitter if you go in for that sort of thing. I […]
[…] found this a brave, complex and moving book, and I recommend it. For a little taste, here is the obituary written for Jonathan Flynn, nearly ten years after the book’s publication. As […]
Well, no one may read this since my thoughts are years late in the game, but
having just read “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” I found this obit comedic, fun and at least “true” to the character we got to know in the memoir. It was a fun too. Kind of jolly and playful, but still a nice way to remember a man who must have been quite a challenge to interact with at times. Quite a “character,” our Jonathan.
I had a lot of problems with the above mentioned memoir, but it did seem to me that Nick was about the only person alive who might have written this and it certainly seems generous enough for a man who completely abandoned his family, with or without charisma.
My problem with the memoir is that even in the digital version, there is no mention of Jonathan’s death six years ago in an Epilogue. But while this memoir is heralded by many with longer and far better pedigrees than mine, I found it lacking in the voice of wisdom, the voice of reflection that wrote about these events many years after they happened. The only developed characters are Nick and his father Jonathan, and at many moments it seemed more biography than memoir.
I guess I’m still waiting for that epilogue where he shares with those of us who didn’t necessarily find his sonnet style of writing deeply engaging and addictive. As a reader, I want to know what he learned from it all in the end. That’s what’s missing from this book.
RIP, Jonathan. Heck, you got Robert De Niro to play you in a movie!