A charming — yes, charming — biography of an “ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath”
Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. Delacorte, 300 pp., $20.
By Janice Harayda
Suppose that you had just slogged through ten of the year’s worst books and wanted to read one that would rekindle your faith in authors and publishers. Suppose – in other words – that you were me and needed something that would induce temporary amnesia for words like “Dr. Phil,” “Mitch Albom” and “human shish kabob scene by Thomas Harris.” What book would you choose?
I picked up Stuart, a recent finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award that I loved when I started it last year but kept having to return to the library because people were on the waiting list. “Charming” isn’t a word often applied to books about “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” as Alexander Masters describes his subject. But it fits this biography of an intelligent and self-aware but physically and mentally impaired man – half Jekyll, half Hyde — whom the author got to know when both were living in or near Cambridge, England.
Masters has enriched his book with quirky, New Yorker-ish line drawings of Stuart Clive Shorter and others in which people’s heads seem too big for their bodies. And whether or not the distortion was intentional, it’s a fine metaphor for the man vibrantly alive on its pages: Stuart was a someone whose brain always seemed to be about to burst out of his body and, apparently, in the end, did.
Recommended … without reservations.
Best line: “The moment of transition is one of the great mysteries of homelessness. At what point does a person change from being inside his house to being outside all houses? When does he go from being one of us to one of them? I can imagine being desperate; I can see being up against the wall, bills dropping in the letter box, wife in bed with the bailiff … what I can’t see is the point at which I think to myself, ‘Bother! Homeless!’ and genuinely believe it … Is this why outreach workers say that it is so important to catch new homeless people within a few weeks of ending up on the streets, maximum, because otherwise they will start to build up a new sense of belonging, to the street community, because they are human and must have companionship, and thereafter it is a hundred times harder to get them back where they started, among the rest of us?”
Worst line: Masters tells us on the first page that Stuart disliked an early draft of this biography and urged him to make the book “like what Tom Clancy writes.” Later Masters writes that the phrase was “like a murder mystery what Tom Clancy writes.” The discrepancy may exist because Masters and Stuart had more than on conversation about the story. But it makes you wonder if a few quotes, or more, were massaged, though this is otherwise a highly credible book.
Editor: Nicholas Pearson
Published: June 2006. Paperback to be published by Delta in May 2007.
Links: Author’s site (which shows some of the illustrations): http://www.alexandermasters.net/new/ [Note: SNAP Preview is enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews. This means that you can see an example of the art in Stuart just by putting your cursor on the preceding link to Masters’s site. You don’t have to click on the link and go to his site.] Publisher’s site: www.bantamdell.com
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Stuart appears in the March 22, 2007, post directly below this one and is archived with the March posts.
Furthermore: Stuart won the Guardian First Book Award and was a finalist for several others, including the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.