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Is There an App for Daddy Issues?

Stephen Elliot builds an app, Nick Flynn traipses the world, but can you ever get away from dear old dad?

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: October, 2010
It has YA zeal tailored for early thirty-something anxiety.
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: October, 2010
It has YA zeal tailored for early thirty-something anxiety.

Stephen Elliot
The Adderall Diaries (iPhone Edition)

Nick Flynn
The Ticking is the Bomb
(W. W. Norton & Company)

For many of us dudes, it is the trauma that is or was our fathers that shape us, chisel at the uncarved blocks of our youth, but like Pinocchio we must at some point become a real boy/man to truly live, a point illustrated in two gripping memoirs by Stephen Elliot and Nick Flynn. The books are curiously similar: they both involve men dealing with itinerant, absent fathers (Elliot dad's possibly killed a guy, drove young Stephen to run away and live on the streets and in group homes, and, to this day, the old man attempts to inject himself into his son's writing career; Flynn's dad robbed a bank, disappeared, became homeless) the curious ways we deal with ourselves (Elliot: writing and opening up and rough sex; Flynn: writing and withdrawing and fleeing from women) and how ever flimsy and threadbare the tethers might be to those who sired us, those ropes remain intact our whole lives. They are perhaps both the perfect models for the modern non-fiction book: under-the-hood journalism/meta-journalism meets frank confession, ball glove in the trunk just in case the old man finally offers to toss the ball around.

The Adderall Diaries came out originally in 2008 to justified acclaim. Elliott's style is a radical honesty that is almost off-putting at times. It has YA zeal tailored for early thirty-something anxiety. The version of himself projected in the book - in memoirs, even in the post-John Frey, we-cannot-tell-a-lie era of memoirs, we must remember there is a difference between the author and the subject - is unflinching in its erratic pastiche of group homes and living on the streets, graphic yet delicate accounts of S/M encounters (you have to be both when you get that close, I suppose) and, on top of that, the murder trial he is covering for a magazine. The details of the murder case unfold at a perfect pop-cinematic pace: courtroom scenes, semi-clandestine meetings in coffee shops, lots of how-can-trust-you moments. The two story lines remain separate threads but weave up into a nice, heavy rope.

In The Ticking is the Bomb, Flynn is present during the interviews of men illustrated in the Abu Ghraib torture photos on one page and bounces back and forth through time, through different women and countries and states of his own mind the next, through his work in a homeless shelter until his father winds up sleeping there, the subject of his previous memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Flynn tries to reel his father in while Elliott attempts to keep his at bay, lamenting the hurtful Amazon comments his father posts about his books. Each find themselves in gravitational orbit with these men, or perhaps as binary stars, curious about the magnetic forces at play.

The two books are even slightly intertwined: both authors have publicly praised the other, and they even make cameos in the others books. Flynn shows up in the book tour notes Elliot includes as a bonus to the iPhone edition of his book, and I suspect that Elliot  is the writer that introduces Flynn to Mistress Yin, a woman that runs a dungeon situated near Ground Zero.

Where they diverge is in writing styles and defense mechanisms. Elliot's is adrenalized, skittering from one personal account to another, a dizzying array as organic as weeds overtaking a neglected yard, convulsive as a downed powerline dancing in a shower of sparks in the street. It is scintillating, perfecting fitting the sensation of an iPhone app. The pages zip from one to the next, filling the little screen without margins, literally and figuratively, flooding both you and the narrator trying to stay afloat. The search and annotation features come in handy when trying to keep up. Since the original version of the book came out, Elliott is probably best known for starting The Rumpus, an online cultural magazine focusing on literature but really focusing on the readers of literature. (Disclosure: I have written a piece for the site) They started a book club, $20 a month gets you hip, heady novels a month before they hit the stores and lengthy and detailed discussions ensue online. The site started a second one for poetry books and a third just for Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and for The Adderall Diaries app, he had built in its own discussion board. As of this writing, I haven't seen much activity on the built-in discussion board so I can't say if this is the future of it books, but its a possible future of books. Young authors belly-aching about “the system” should purchase this and use the annotation feature to take notes on how to harness your destiny.

Ticking's fragmentation is of a somnambulant, nostalgic sort; the short chapters all begin with a year and usually a single encounter with a woman, with prisoners, with his father, with his newborn child, that ism, when he's not watching torture victims get interviewed.  It is a book built of dreams. Flynn drifts semi-passively through many of the scenes with the characters moving closer and further on elliptical orbits. Flynn is perpetually haunted by the uncertainties of his mother's suicide and then later confronted by the fact of the hoader junk filling his father’s apartment, both taking up a lot of space in his own luggage as he flits the world running away from and toward himself.

In both, the authors reach a detente with their fathers; something less transactional than compromise, less brittle than apologies, and neither give into easy resolution or I-yam-what-I-yam resignation to their own inherited faults and improvised virtues. They instead use these experiences and devices (both poetic and physical) to reinforce the fabric of who they are, recognizing that it might tear again any minute now, to rejoin the continuum. That ultimately is the best use of one's trials and one's ingenuity and one's humanity.

The Ticking is the Bomb is available from Powell's and other fine stores. The Adderall Diaries app is available at the iTunes store.

Author photo of Stephen Elliott from the app.

see more stories from outsideleft's Fiction & Poetry archive »»

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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