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Fatherhood lights a fuse in 'Ticking Is the Bomb'

THE TICKING IS THE BOMB, by Nick Flynn. W.W. Norton & Co., 283 pp., $24.95.

I'm tempted to report that Nick Flynn's new memoir, "The Ticking Is the Bomb," is about a midlife crisis. Flynn, when he starts writing the book, is in his mid-40s, has gotten married (after vacillating between two girlfriends) and faces the daunting prospect of fatherhood. He has also become obsessed with torture in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations. The book is shot through with anxiety, doubt and uncertainty.

Except that Flynn's entire life has been one long-simmering crisis, as readers of his 2004 memoir, "Another -- Night in Suck City," already know. Middle age has been relatively smooth sailing for him.

In "Suck City," Flynn created a vivid portrait of his father, Jonathan, who left home and disappeared when Nick was a boy, re-entering his life decades later when he turns up, drunk and delusional, at the Pine Street Inn in Boston, the homeless shelter where Nick then worked. In the intervening years he had done prison time for passing bad checks. Nick's mother, meanwhile, had committed suicide when he was in college. The book was a probing account of the collateral damage incurred by these twin catastrophes, catastrophes that left Flynn benumbed and adrift throughout his 20s and 30s.

As "The Ticking Is the Bomb" opens, Flynn has turned 45, "just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails." For the first time, Flynn writes, he looks his age. ("You used to be a pup, one woman says - now you're a dog.") He's faced with the dilemma of his two girlfriends, though he will ultimately decide to marry the one he calls "Inez" (in reality actress Lili Taylor). In 2008, Inez will give birth to their daughter, Maeve.

Readers of "Suck City" know that Flynn is an aggressively nonlinear storyteller, and this sequence of events doesn't unfold in strict chronological order. Instead, he writes short, concentrated passages that shift back and forth in time and weave through memories, dreams and poetic musings. (Flynn is the author of two books of poems, "Some Ether" and "Blind Huber.") He describes his method best when he likens his life to a "little box of tragedies"; he "hold[s] them up like slides to a lightbulb." They're all out of order, yet viewing them at random in this way creates unexpected patterns and associations.

Both of Flynn's parents reappear in "The Ticking Is the Bomb," and they remain his most realized and poignant characters. (Inez, by contrast, is an indistinct presence, as the author surely intended.) Flynn's mother, long dead, is conjured out of memories, but his father is very much alive. Jonathan Flynn has been living for years in a filthy, subsidized apartment in Boston stacked high with a lifetime of knickknacks, photographs and papers, until his increasingly erratic and abusive behavior leads to the psych ward and, ultimately, a long-term care facility.

And then there's the author's preoccupation with torture. "If asked," he writes, "I'll sometimes say that I'm writing about torture, but I've found that if I say the word 'torture' many go glassy-eyed, silent, as if I'd just dropped a stone into a deep, deep well. . . . Sometimes I'll say I'm writing a memoir of bewilderment, and just leave it at that, but what I mean is the bewilderment of waking up, my hand on Inez's belly, as the fine points of waterboarding are debated on public radio."

This part of the book is just as hazy as it sounds, and not altogether successful. Flynn is not a journalist, and he doesn't explore the facts of American torture methodically, as Jane Mayer did in "The Dark Side." But he's more than just an ordinary concerned citizen, and his obsession leads him to Istanbul, where he sits in as former Abu Ghraib detainees are interviewed by an American lawyer in preparation for a lawsuit. The connections to Flynn's own life feel tenuous, though he does learn that among the prisons where the CIA tested different "stress" techniques were Lexington, Ky., and Marion, Ill. - eerily, both prisons that Flynn's father passed through.

And yet if Flynn's handling of the political material is deeply subjective and nonconclusive, that feels somehow right. What unifies this fragmentary book is Flynn's compelling voice, that of a man grappling with the complexities of his life and the world - imperfectly but honestly.

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