August 24, 2006

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Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters (Delacorte Press, 2006, 300 pages)

By page 7 of this affecting biography you will know—although you might occasionally forget as you get further into the book—that Stuart, the 33-year-old formerly homeless subject of the book, in the end steps in front of a train.

And yet, remarkably, this will not cast a cloud over his life story. A tinge of sadness, yes, but there were already enough other things to accomplish that anyway. I can’t explain it, but the book feels hopeful, reassuring, despite the fact that it documents some horrific events as well as some good ones. I don’t mean schmaltzy; I really mean hopeful.

Maybe that’s because Stuart really did change. Sometimes for the worse, but sometimes for the better. Did drugs, but not always. Lived on the streets, but not always. Went to prison, but got out and functioned. So there’s a sense of possibility. And maybe because, although Stuart was prone to rages and self-harm, he also was inclined to simply roll with the waves of his life. Despite all the crap that happened to him, and there was much, we don’t see any guilt-slinging. He gets very very angry, and paranoid, but he doesn’t wallow. Not in this story, anyway. There is a lightness to that.

I came to love Stuart — easy, perhaps, because he’s separated from me by an ocean and a journalist. (The book was first published in Britain in 2005 and won some awards there.) On one hand, Stuart is not scary at all; author Alex Masters spends lots of time with him, even alone with him, and is never scared, or harmed. On the other hand, Stuart’s criminal record screams “stay away from this man.” Stuart has, as Alex puts it, done the unspeakable. (He threatened to murder his son. In the son’s presence, using son as hostage.) And at the same time Stuart is someone who has been seriously screwed over.

There’s a wonderful blending here of Stuart just living his life and Stuart, and Alex, trying to figure out his life. He so often says things like “I don’t know why—that’s just how my life was at that time.” This account offers insight into the lives of the homeless, the convicted, the mentally unstable. But then again, this account makes no claims about anything except Stuart.

You could easily read Stuart and think it was fiction, at least to a point. The occasional statistics might be the affectations of a novelist aspiring to quirkiness. The book has line drawings but, unusual for a bio, only two small photos of the subject. Stuart’s life is presented in scenes built on dialogue and imagery, just like a novel; no dry recitations of facts and dates.

But mostly what makes it seem not like a biography is that it lacks any sense of trying to Be Important, and it lacks any distracting sense of The Importance of The Biographer, even though he participates in some of Stuart’s life. It helps immensely, I think, that Alex is not foremost a writer (well, maybe now he is), but is foremost a worker in hostels for the homeless. Not an activist with a bone to pick; just a guy who, between jobs as an illustrator and a bedspread salesman, has lived and worked around homeless folks, who befriended this one in particular.

At one point Alex mentions gathering with colleagues to discuss whether Stuart Shorter is indeed worth a book.

The finished product makes clear: he is. Stuart: A Life Backwards deserves a spot on a lot of reading lists. A

— Lisa Parsons


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