I obviously did not want to read this book. It first arrived in the mail, as an advance review copy, a several months ago, and I consigned it casually to the pile of books that I might read some day. But I didn't read it. There was something about it, obviously, that I did not like. Perhaps it was the cover. Perhaps it was the color of the cover--a bright lemon yellow. Perhaps it was the title of one of the author's previous publications, boldly printed at the bottom of the cover, to pull the reader (reviewer) in: "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City." Spare me, I may have thought. Perhaps it was the image on the cover that I found offensive, a squatting figure vaguely resembling the Buddha, fingertips barely touching, in meditation posture, doubling as a bomb or hand grenade with a lit fuse attached. Perhaps it was the book's title, The Ticking Is the Bomb, which I may have judged to be at once obscene and cute. Then, a couple of months later, the hard copy arrived and I still did not want to read it.
Then, just two days ago, for whatever reason, I picked it up. Perhaps something moves us to pick up a book just when we need to read it. Because I soon realized--a few pages in--that this was, is, an important, urgent, timely book, and one that I had to read. I re-learned a lesson from that ridiculous old cliche: you can't judge a book by its cover...
So here it is, The Ticking Is the Bomb, by Nick Flynn. I have just finished reading it, and was engrossed from the first page to the last of the notes, at the end, citing sources from the book's wide-ranging, generous quotations and references and offering further insight into its meaning. (Even these were as unconventional as the text itself, rejecting that old, familiar academic format.)
It's a memoir. Nick Flynn is about to become a father, and he is determined to face every last one of his demons before the event, in order, I think, to prepare himself. His personal demons, that is, and those of the world which his child is about to enter.
His personal demons include: a father who abandoned him early in his life, a jailbird (armed robbery,) a victim to demons of his own--alcoholism, addiction, homelessness, destitution, hoarding...; a mother, who abandoned herself to countless lovers, each of them tortured in his own way, or criminal, and who ended her own life with a bullet, leaving her son to agonize over her loss; his own addictions (Nick's) to alcohol, drugs, women. At the start he is "in love" with two, faithful to neither and unable to trust himself to a commitment. He is lost. He seeks to lose himself, literally, for a spell, at sea. He rejects the comfort and stability of an anchor.
And the demons of the world at large: war--the ghosts of Vietnam, the needless bloodshed in Iraq...--terror, corruption, torture, institutional lies, profiteering. Greed for power. Cruelty. Torture. Flynn keeps bringing us back to torture. The recurring theme in so many of the brief, a-chronological entries in this memoir is Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration's justification and use of torture in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers. We are implicated, in these pages, in an America whose values have been perverted in the name of national security. Our Virgil, through this Dante-esque vision of inferno, is tortured by his own implication, the perversion of his soul. He does not spare himself, in the journey he must now undertake toward fatherhood, toward the responsibility of bringing new, young, innocent, beautiful life into this planet. He understands that he cannot look for salvation in the daughter he will soon be father to, he must find it in himself.
If he does succeed in finding salvation of a kind, in a world the threatens to disintegrate into darkness and meaninglessness, it is through this searing, unsparing, rigorous descent into the depths of his own mind. Each one of his--each relatively short, always gripping--excursions takes him deeper (takes us deeper) into the mystery of being human: having a body with its needs, having feelings, having families, having experiences with others, being surrounded and sometimes seemingly trapped by events beyond control, beyond comprehension, impervious to reason. He finds--I'm happy to say--in Buddhist teachings, including but not restricted to those of Thich Nhat Hanh, a way in which that mystery can be, if not understood or explained, at least accepted for what it is in each given moment; at least come to terms with.
The birth of Flynn's daughter brings him, at end end--I'm also happy to report--to a curious joy, a glimpse of light in the darkness, a sense of personal commitment and stability. His book is not an easy read, though it reads easily. I have not read any of the poetry I understand Flynn writes, but it is clear from these pages that he sees things, feels things, comes to terms with things as a poet--through the flow of words and image into language that is at once beautiful and strong. His book, as I said earlier, is urgent and important in a world like ours, a beacon of authenticity and courage at a time when too many of us cower with fear in the face of the world's vicissitudes and uncertainties. "The Ticking Is the Bomb" has much to teach us about our responsibility to ourselves and to each other, about personal integrity and fearlessness, and about the values we must each embrace if we are to be worthy of the gift that is our life.