Nick Flynn loses himself and his country in new memoir • Brooklyn Paper

Nick Flynn loses himself and his country in new memoir

Cobble Hill-based poet Nick Flynn has a new book out about fatherhood and the use of terror. Yes, there’s a connection.
The Brooklyn Paper / Bess Adler

If you were in love with two people at the same time and could not pick between them, you might feel at times that you had lost your way.

But if that struggle took place just as the notorious Abu Ghraib photos were leaked to the media, you might feel that you were not the only one who was lost, but that your entire nation had become untethered, that one of the bedrock ideals in your crazy, messed-up life — the notion of a just and honest America — had crumbled.

And then you’d know a tiny bit of what Cobble Hill poet and memoirist Nick Flynn (“Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”) felt as he was writing his latest book, “The Ticking is the Bomb” (Norton).

The good news is that the destruction of personal and national ideals makes for a scintillating memoir that proves uncategorically that the personal is indeed political.

The book obstensibly concerns itself with how Flynn picked one of the two women, gave up booze and drugs, and found peace as a new father, but it is far more ambitious than a mere account of how one screwed up 50-year-old found his way during one of America’s darkest periods.

Taking readers from Mount Calvary to the Mai Lai massacre site to every grusome moment before and after, Flynn makes an effective case that our entire civilization is resting on a foundation of brutality.

But after Abu Ghraib, it was all different.

“The transformative moment in any era is when people suddenly accept what has been previously unaccepitable,” Flynn told The Brooklyn Paper. “In ‘Another Bullshit Night,’ that moment was when people accepted masses of homeless people living on the street. Just 10 years earlier, people would have said, ‘Oh, that’s not America. That’s not who we are.’ But one day we woke up and were OK with it.

“The same thing happened with torture,” he added.

Seeing the Abu Ghraib photos deeply affected Flynn — in the same way that a man is constantly called “paranoid” only to discover that everyone is indeed out to get him.

The year after the photos were leaked to the media, for example, Flynn won an award from PEN, the literary and humanitarian group. The night’s other honoree? Sam Harris, whose non-fiction book, “The End of Faith,” actually advocates the use of torture in some circumstances.

“Harris is free to write and publish whatever he wishes, but why did a human rights organizataion choose to endorse it with an award?” Flynn writes. “And why had they photographed me shaking hands with him, smiling like an idiot?”

That photograph, along with the ones from Abu Ghraib, torments Flynn. A human rights organization. A president. A nation. Did anyone in this country care that we torture human beings?

“I thought the Abu Ghraib photos would be a moment of awakening, but they were not,” he said. “We accept it. It’s no longer a shameful secret. Think back to the Reagan years. We did some especially dark things in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but the difference was that Reagan denied it to the end. But Bush said openly that we’ve tortured in the past and we will again.

“I guess it’s refreshingly honest, but when we accept it, we’ve crossed over.”

But “The Ticking is the Bomb” is not an indictment of any former president or even the soldiers on that infamous night shift. In Flynn’s book, we have met the enemy and it is us.

“There are many important books that came out about Abu Ghraib, but they were all from a journalistic perspective — trying to understand these strange people who did these horrible things at Abu Ghraib,” Flynn said. “But those soldiers are not monsters — that’s too easy. We’ve been doing it for years. This is who we are. We need a reckoning among ourselves, not just putting [notorious leash-holder] Lynndie England in jail.”

Is America capable of that?

“Our main problem is American exceptionalism itself,” he said. “We believe that we are the best country in the world — and as soon as you start thinking that, you are asking for trouble.”

It’s not just foreign policy. It’s on the home front, too.

“When my wife [the actress Lili Taylor] got pregnant, we were browsing for baby books, and we spotted one called, ‘The Happiest Baby on the Block.’ I think that’s such a sick idea. Yes, we all want a happy baby, but does he or she have to be the ‘happiest’? Where does that end?”

It doesn’t. The same thing motivates some parents to seek “the happiest” baby and a nation to torture: fear of the unknown.

“I’m just a memorist, so I have no solutions, but the book is about looking at what terrifies us and figuring out if it is a phantom or real, and not allowing us to control us in either case.

“We have 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Yet there are only 100 Al Qaeda terrorists there,” Flynn adds. “It’s controlling us.”

“The Ticking is the Bomb” is available at Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. at S. Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 246-0200], BookCourt [163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean streets, (718) 875-3677] and Word [126 Franklin St. at Milton Street in Greenpoint, (718) 383-0096].

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