Nick Flynn’s This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire

Nick Flynn’s fourth memoir, This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020) is captivating and impressive as it charts the story of how his mother came to set their house on fire in the summer of 1967 and how this memory unfolds time and again throughout Flynn’s life. This is Flynn’s most accomplished memoir to date, surpassing Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in its masterful use of memory, voice, and literary inventiveness. Here, Flynn’s tone is authentic and honest as he takes readers through the various narrative and lyrical threads that run through the book. Flynn discusses many subjects: his Massachusetts upbringing, his mother’s life and the events leading up to her suicide, his fascination with Mr. Mann, an old hermit who lives in a rundown house not far from his grandmother, his dysfunctional marriage, his relationship with women, and his attempt to connect with his seven-year-old daughter as he tells her stories of what life was like for him when he was her age. The writing in this memoir is truly exceptional; it is descriptive, literary, imaginative, speculative, artful, and utterly honest. Flynn’s talents as a storyteller shine through especially well as he explores his inner psyche and how the environment of his youth continues to shape and influence his present self.

One of the major strengths of the memoir is its structure. The entire work revolves around Flynn’s mother, Jody, chronicling her life as a young mother supporting two sons, her relationship with men, and the difficult events of her life that lead to her eventual suicide. What readers learn about Jody is that she comes from money, but sees none of it due to her father’s disapproval of her life choices. As a result, she and her two children are forced to fend for themselves in order to survive. They subsist on money she makes from low-wage work (waitressing, working in a grocery store, bartending, working at a bank) and she is eventually able to afford a house. Flynn describes it in wonderful detail:

This is the first house my mother will buy. It will cost—impossibly—two thousand dollars. She buys it five years after leaving our father, after five years of us bouncing from friends’ couches to lousy rentals. An ugly house, sheathed in asbestos siding, siding that refuses paint, so we will simply never paint it. If this was Monopoly a house like this would be on Mediterranean, and the rent would be twenty dollars. My mother is twenty-five when she buys it—young, single, beautiful. She has two kids and three jobs and now she (well, mostly the bank) owns a house.

This is the house Jody sets on fire in 1967. It is the central moment of the book; Flynn tells multiple versions of the story and continually returns to it at different points in his life. At times, Flynn grapples with the thought that his mother could bring herself to start the fire; he wonders about her motives and the possible consequences of performing such a risky and dangerous act. At the core of it, Jody sets the house on fire out of desperation. She is poor; she has two children to take care of. She is seeing a man who has another family. She has limited options in terms of the kind of work available (unskilled labor). Flynn points to these truths in various ways. One way is through imagined thoughts. Here, he imagines his mother thinking to herself as she works at the supermarket making donuts:

If I follow the recipe taped above my station, everything will work out. Two bags white flour, two gallons whole milk, a dozen eggs, a bag of sugar. By now I know where everything is. I cruise the dim aisles, filling my cart. Sometimes I imagine I’m in that tv show—Supermarket Sweep—where you get to run through a supermarket, pushing a cart, throwing in whatever you can grab. You have two minutes to spend as much as you can. If, at checkout, your total is the highest, you win.

Through Jody’s imagined thoughts, readers get an idea of her internal logic, how she believes that following a recipe is a way to take control of her precarious situation, how poverty has shaped her ideas about what it means to be a consumer in the United States in the sixties and seventies. Jody serves as the primary lens through which Flynn sees himself as a child and as an adult. He watches her suffer through failed, destructive relationships, endure the stresses of unskilled work, and her attempts at coping with all of it. It is through Jody’s presence as a mother that Flynn both knows and struggles to know himself.

A major aspect of the book deals with Flynn’s marriage. Readers will learn immediately that Flynn’s relationship with his wife is not only strained, it lacks any type of intimacy (verbal, emotional, physical). The reasons for this are not clearly stated, but what becomes apparent is that Flynn has survived a history of relationships with women that ended badly or fizzled out. There is O, his first girlfriend, who he believes is dying of a terminal illness; he supports her financially in order to help her with her medical bills only to find out later that she lied about being terminally ill. There is A, a woman he can’t seem to connect with, who drifts out of his life. There is S, a woman he has an affair with that seems more like an emotional entanglement than an actual relationship—meant primarily to counteract his toxic marriage. Additionally, Flynn is burdened by the idea of marriage as an institution: “Marriage, the idea of it, not to mention its reality, never hung loosely on my shoulders—it felt, rather, like a weight pushing on my lungs, slowly crushing me.” His dissatisfaction with the concept of marriage is intensified by being with a woman who is emotionally absent, who is more interested in birds than being present in her marriage, who is also a workaholic. In talking about his wife, Flynn remarks “…I married a woman whom it seemed I was utterly replaceable, which at first suited me fine, but eventually made me feel like I was little more than a ghost, passing through rooms that would never be mine.”

As Flynn continues to struggle as a husband, his wife’s unwillingness to reach out to him in any sincere way serves as a major factor in his decision to engage in an affair. He gives a very precise, lyrical example of the true nature of their marriage:

My wife, seeing I was struggling, had gotten a referral from her therapist.

She passed me a folded piece of paper with a name on it.

This is her way of helping Flynn through his personal crises, to hand him off to a licensed specialist and dissociate from him completely. Flynn shows this dissociation through the use of the second person as a way to articulate what it’s like to live with a woman who does not see her husband at all:

It’s night, your wife is beside you, checking something on her computer. Time passes. The world in her computer is vast, full of unspeakable damage—children missing, children abducted, children tortured. It seems this could go on forever. The steam from her shower rises off her body. You would like to make love, but the world on her computer is not making her think of that. It is, in fact, making her think the opposite of that—what is the opposite of making love? You’re reading a book called The Trauma of Every Day Life, your wife passed it to you when she saw how much you were struggling. To be honest, The Trauma of Every Day Life isn’t making you feel much like fucking either.

Again, in this passage, the wife’s solution to her husband’s suffering is to hand him off to another expert. The problems, as she sees it, are completely outside of herself, and lie primarily with the husband. This allows her to shift responsibility away from herself—and her apparent inability to engage in physical intimacy—and onto her husband. Flynn expands on this idea of nonexistent physical intimacy when he says

At one point, before the affair, you begged your wife to leave the lights on so you could see each other, but that didn’t work, not for long, not for her—like everyone else, she has her own vanishings. You had to learn to make love in the dark, yet there was a problem—wrapped in darkness, she could be anyone.

By the end, she always was.

What is exposed here, through these second person passages, is a marriage that isn’t much of a marriage at all, but rather, a relationship where one person (the husband) is invisible and forced to make sense of his own suffering and the other person (the wife) is blameless and self-righteous in her attitude toward her husband’s emotional and physical needs. Sex, like everything else in the marriage, functions on her terms: “Sometimes she puts your hand on her stomach, which is a signal for you to come out.” Flynn believes that his recklessness within his marriage stems from past psychological trauma (watching his mother engage in relationships with men who were either married or ended up cheating on her as well as his own bad relationships in and out of addiction) and on some level this may be true, but the actual source lies in the fact that he and his wife are incompatible. As a result, they struggle in their attempt to maintain a marriage without equilibrium. Flynn is self-deprecating because he constantly struggles to understand himself; his wife lacks any ability to be self-reflective because she believes she has all the answers right at her fingertips (therapists, self-help books, etc.). As Flynn astutely points out, even his daughter makes note that something is amiss: “My daughter looks around our apartment, as if she’d just woken up on another planet. Something is wrong.”

Another major thread that runs through the book is Flynn’s curiosity about Mr. Mann, an old hermit who lives in a rundown house, and who, it is said, once shot a kid with rock salt. As a child, Flynn lurks around Mr. Mann’s property and eventually breaks into his house and steals a few items. When Mr. Mann dies, Flynn’s mother gives him an apt explanation:

Mr. Mann hadn’t paid his bills—not gas, not electric, not oil—so he got shut off. They unplugged him. He’d only lived with electricity for a few years, and now they killed him, by taking it away. Con-Ed bills filled one corner of his room, unopened. His obituary would say he was ninety-three years old. His obituary wouldn’t say that the electric company killed him, but everyone in town knew. We killed him because he was poor.

After Mr. Mann dies, Spanish doubloons are found stashed away in his house. With the money, the house is turned into a museum, and Flynn takes his daughter there. However, one of the most poignant moments of the memoir consists of an imagined conversation between Flynn as a boy and Mr. Mann the night he dies. Here is a section of it:

Boy: I stole wood from your barn.

Mann: I let you steal it.

Boy: I broke into your house.

Mann: The door was unlocked.

Boy: I went in through the window. I stole a scroll.

Mann: I had lots of scrolls.

Boy: Nicholas Nickelby.

Mann: I didn’t miss it.

Boy: What’s the matter?

Mann: I’m just going to lie down for a minute.

Boy: You have to stay awake. You have to keep moving.

Mann: I left things for you to find. A can of rusty nails, a broken hammer.

Boy: That was you?

Mann: You were a good carpenter.

When Flynn’s therapist asks him what Mr. Mann represents to him, he says that he represents “a place where I could control the damage” and “safety.” It could also be argued that Mr. Mann represents acceptance and non-judgement. In the imagined conversation, the boy version of Flynn attempts to confess his wrongdoings (breaking and entering, stealing), but Mr. Mann absolves him by turning his supposed crimes into harmless acts. Mr. Mann’s primary goal in this imagined conversation is to defuse blame: “I stole wood from your barn / I let you steal it,” “I broke into your house / The door was unlocked,” “I stole a scroll / I had lots of scrolls” and to give the boy something he rarely, if ever, receives: a compliment: “You were a good carpenter.” A frequent question Flynn returns to throughout the memoir is why his mother committed suicide. It can be argued that her suicide may have been the result of a deep depression due to the fact that she was unappreciated and unwanted and felt unworthy of love. Her life lacked acceptance and non-judgement. The same could be said for Flynn. He charts his life using a timeline of traumas, addictions, and mistakes. For all his self-examination, he never learns to forgive himself; he never learns to accept himself. For Flynn, Mr. Mann serves as an imaginative space where he can experience unconditional love outside of an environment that withholds it from him due to systemic inequality and societal callousness. This desire for acceptance and love is one of the many unspoken themes that live within the memoir.

At one point, Flynn proclaims: “Here’s what I believe: You can survive anything if you believe that one person in the world is wild about you.” This is a belief Flynn has not found tangible proof of yet, but it is one of the major (implied) thrusts of the memoir. This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire is about how Flynn’s mother sets their house on fire and collects the insurance money; it is about Flynn’s troubled past and his toxic marriage; it is about his need to show his daughter where she comes from and who she is, but it is also about Flynn’s desire for connection, and how he’s still seeking it out. Flynn examines his past with great detail; he excavates his failed and difficult relationships; he is honest with himself: because he is so obsessed with understanding his past, he is unable to exist in the present moment. But this memoir signals the possibility for transition. This is Flynn’s best memoir because he has written it from the perspective of a man who now has access to parts of himself that he didn’t have before; he is writing from a place of lived experience. And in that lived experience, there is room for personal growth, for a chance at a new beginning. This memoir suggests that Flynn may be on the threshold of true healing that could potentially lead him to a better place where he is not anchored down by trauma, memory, pain, suffering, and perceived inadequacies. It is Flynn’s belief in the possibility of a real intimate connection that drives his writing and it is what makes this memoir so exceptional. It will be very interesting to see where that belief takes him next.   

September 28, 2020