This week's book is one of the ones that Nick Hornby writes about in Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. Stuart, a life backwards, by Alexander Masters, is the biography of Stuart Shorter. Who is Stuart Shorter, you may ask. He's a homeless man who lived in Cambridge, England. A violent criminal. A drug user. Someone with borderline personality disorder. The kind of person most people try hard not to make eye contact with, if they can't avoid entirely. So, in many ways, the simple idea of writing a biography about Stuart is a political statement, an argument that his life is as worthy of study as the politicians, scientists, or writers who are more traditional subjects of biography.
But the book is far more than just a political statement. The edition I have is covered with blurbs from impressive reviews, with "extraordinary" and "funny" being the most common words used. Masters does an impressive job of portraying Stuart sympathetically without whitewashing his crimes or excusing his truly awful choices. He includes Stuart's comments on the draft manuscript (which he thought was boring) and credits him with the idea of telling his life backwards, unfolding from their first encounters (working together to protest the unjust arrest of two social workers for not preventing drug dealing at a homeless shelter) to his earliest childhood (when he was both physically and sexually abused). When Masters calls Stuart his friend, I believe him.
In another blurb, Zadie Smith is quoted as saying "It's been years since I've been so delighted by a book." Either she's off her rocker or she's got a different definition of "delighted" than I do. The book is many things, but delightful is not one of them. It's depressing as hell. If Neil in 49-Up is a walking advertisement for the welfare state, Stuart's story is a parable about the limits of the welfare state. Unlike his American counterparts, Stuart is provided a place to live and a living stipend, but neither is enough to give stability to his "chaotic" life.
At one point, Alexander is flabbergasted when Stuart refers to "posh" people who live on council estates -- what we'd call public housing. He writes:
"The boy's a freak, surely.
"No. He's not. People like Stuart -- the lowest of the low on the streets, outcasts even among outcasts, the uneducated chaotic homeless, the real fuck-ups -- people who've had their school and social training lopped off at twelve: they simply don't understand the way the big world works. They are isolated from us normal, housed people as we are from them. If Stuart is a freak, then it is for opposite reasons: it is because he has had the superhuman strength not to be defeated by this isolation. It is because he has had the almost unbelievable social adroitness to be able to fit in smoothly with an educated, soft-skinned person like myself and not make me frightened half to death."