The memoir is a potentially problematic art form. Nowadays it seems most readily available to celebrities (rarely artful but usually profitable) or to certain literary figures that New York publishers fancy are worthy of our interest. Meanwhile, memoirs written by nobodies, no matter how good, won’t usually find their way to the general public. Nick Flynn, in a way, falls into all three categories. A poet of some repute (well, among poetry fans) and a playwright, Flynn is also the author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004), which won a PEN Award and is under development as a movie. Flynn is also well published in places like The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Times and The Paris Review. With The Ticking Is the Bomb, he returns again to memoir, exploring territory tangential to his previous account of his difficult reunion with his homeless father; in this book, Flynn himself has become a father.

Flynn’s diarylike entries here veer all over the place—from the early ‘70s, when he was a teen, through to the present day—and prove to be generally as lugubrious and fitful as they are desultory. Stern memories of a tough early life and his mother’s suicide alternate with reportage on his career as a writer and teacher, his travels, fatherhood, world politics, the war in Iraq (particularly the Abu Ghraib photographs) and other sundry ancillary topics, most of it presented in a readable conversational style that is enhanced by occasional passages that emerge more as poetic reflection than as mere emotional response. Yet Flynn certainly is combative and opinionated, in particular in his undisguised hostility toward the Right, which finds him scoffingly dismissive of figures like Bush and Rumsfeld—not to mention his fellow PEN Award-winner Sam Harris, whose controversial The End of Faith was criticized widely for its views on Islam, terrorism and torture.

You’d think a book like this would hardly be a good read, and yet it often is, however much it riffs on the themes of pain and inhumanity and invites us in to the author’s dark, often ambivalent world.

Martin Brady writes from Nashville.

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