Nick Flynn is probably the only living poet who watched his life made into a movie last year. He's most certainly the only one who saw Robert De Niro play his father — and without a doubt the only one whose father shrugged De Niro off, unimpressed.
Flynn tells this story in "The Reenactments" (W.W. Norton, 320 pp., $15.95), his new fun-house-mirror memoir of his experiences on the set of "Being Flynn," the film adaptation of his award-winning 2004 memoir "Another … Night in Suck City." That book recounted his unusual relationship with his father, a charming alcoholic ne'er-do-well with delusions of grandeur who washed up, as a client, at the Boston homeless shelter where Nick worked.
The new book opens with Flynn on the set of the movie of his early life, watching from the wings as Julianne Moore acts out his mother's suicide. What was it like to relive such a moment?
"What was it like? It was like a million things. It takes an entire book to tell you what it was like," he says. "To see Robert De Niro play your father — it's not a simple answer. To see Julianne Moore play your mother. To see Paul Dano play you — that's an even more inscrutable question … he's amazing, he's totally amazing, but I can't really say if he's a good me or not."
Flynn, 52, is now a professor of poetry and married to actress Lili Taylor. He grew up in poor areas in and around Boston. His father was absent but remained a looming figure, thanks to a barrage of letters, sometimes sent from jail, that proclaimed his genius and importance. Nick was in his 20s, indulging in drugs and alcohol while trying to do good work at the homeless shelter when his father walked in.
Parts of Nick's story — that he had a massive motorcycle accident and eventually cleaned up and went to college — didn't make it into the film. What did was his father, a frightening, impossible, charismatic figure. "Some people find my father to be likable, and they want to go have a drink with him," Flynn says. "Other people think he's a monster. I tried to write him that way, so people could have their own experience with him."
In "The Reenactments," Flynn follows his father's story to the present — he's in a cheery assisted-living facility, diminished, his memory spotty.
"If you're going to write about someone's life, you don't just use them for wallpaper. You have to honor and respect that life," he says. While for some that would mean bromides, for Flynn it's about difficult truths; this is also a characteristic of his poetry. "The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands," which came out in paperback this month, is a looping, stuttering look at the torture at Abu Ghraib.
As the cameras rolled on "Being Flynn," Nick, whose work is simultaneously revealing and emotionally reticent, filled notebooks with his impressions and experiences. That was the genesis of "The Reenactments," a memoir told in short, artful sections. Flynn braids two other narratives into the book — an exploration of neurobiology, and the largely forgotten work of a father and son who created scientific models of flowers out of glass. Together, they form a refracted portrait of art, story and how we become who we are.
Using snippets of neurobiology to push the idea further, Flynn explores the mirror studies of Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who discovered that people feeling phantom pain in a missing limb — a real symptom of major injuries — could find relief with the help of a mirror. In other words, the human brain can be tricked out of feeling pain in the missing limb by being shown a reflection of the good limb, which forms an image of the body, complete.
Flynn connects the idea of mirror therapy and the film. "If you view the making of the film as an experiment on my psyche, as a type of mirrored box to relieve my unprocessed grief over my mother's death, it actually kind of worked," he says. For the first time, he explains, "I went through this holiday season remarkably unburdened by these painful memories."
In both the movie and Flynn's original memoir, we learn that his mother found and read a story he'd written — unfinished but something that could have been hurtful — immediately before her suicide. "His presence on the day we were shooting his mother's suicide was a deeply disturbing ride for him," says director Paul Weitz. "On my part, it was like standing next to the third rail emotionally."
Flynn worked with Weitz ("About a Boy," "Little Fockers") for seven years in bringing the film to screen, and the two have a warm regard for each other. After reading "The Reenactments," Weitz says, "The thing that got to me most was the thought that the film served as mirror therapy for him. That's very meaningful for me."
While preparing for the film, Flynn took Weitz and De Niro to meet his father in a Massachusetts assisted-living facility. The elder Flynn spun tales for an hour but wasn't able to grasp who he was talking to.
Nick writes, "I take this moment to try, once again, to get him to take it in, that we are making a film about his life. Bob is going to play you, in the movie version of the book. That's why we're here, he wanted to meet you. He looks over at De Niro, as if taking him in for the first time. So, you do a little acting? my father asks. You like to act? De Niro smiles, shrugs: Yeah, I do a little acting."
On set, Flynn saw the actors do take after take in each scene, bringing up different emotions and reactions each time. In some ways, his art has followed a similar path, returning to his experience through one refraction, then another, then another.
"In life you get one take, and it's perfect," Flynn says. "It's strange, afterwards you might think I shouldn't have reacted that way, but that's the way you reacted. That's your take; that's all you get."
Flynn will appear in conversation with Elvis Mitchell at Los Angeles Public Library's ALOUD on at 7:15 p.m. Thursday. For more information: http://www.lfla.org/aloud