- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006


By Alexander Masters

Delacorte Press, $20, 320 pages


In what is either a testament to the author’s skill or a comment on my dullness, I read the first several chapters of this captivating book thinking it was a novel. In a way, I wish it were, because it’s very disturbing to know that all of this misfortune — the events of Stuart Shorter’s life give new and unsettling meaning to the phrase “It shouldn’t happen to a dog” — was visited upon a real person.

I suspect I misled myself because the opening scenes so vibrantly depict a wild but woeful character that you say to yourself (at least I did), This guy can’t be for real. But he is, unfortunately.

“Stuart: A Life Backwards” is the American version of a book that came out in England last year and won the Guardian First Book Award and was on the short-list for both the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Whitbread Biography Award. In a sense, it’s also an autobiography, as the author, Alexander Masters, does not narrate from a safe remove, but is often right there in the midst of Stuart’s self-destructive, messy life, trying to give it at least some structure.

Mr. Masters, a London social worker, meets Stuart during one of the latter’s many stretches as a homeless person, or, in Brit-Speak, a “rough sleeper.” Something clicks between them, and Alex befriends Stuart and Stuart responds by trusting him.

Eventually, Stuart, who has gotten a grip on his life and seems to be straightening out, allows Alex to write his story as a way of helping “normal” citizens see the homeless as people, not something to be stepped around on the way to the tube station. When he’s done a few chapters, Alex gives them to Stuart for his reaction:

“Stuart does not like the manuscript.

“Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.

“‘What’s the matter with it?’

“‘It’s bollocks boring.’”

“… Put briefly, his objection is this: I drone on.

“He wants jokes, yarns, humour. He doesn’t admire ‘academic quotes’ and background research. ‘Nah, Alexander, you gotta start again. You gotta do better than this.’

“He’s after a bestseller, ‘like what Tom Clancy writes.’

“‘But you are not an assassin trying to frazzle the president with anthrax bombs,’ I point out. You are an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath, I do not add.”

“Stuart phrases it another way, then: ‘Something what people will read.’”

Taking his subject’s suggestion, Mr. Masters turns the story around and tells it from the present back into the past, as a more dramatic way of showing — if that is truly possible — what shaped Stuart Shorter and made him the near-monster he was when Alex stumbled over him drunk in a London gutter. It may sound like an odd way to tell a story, but in the talented hands of this first-time author, it works.

To begin, Mr. Masters classifies the different types of homeless people. Least worrisome (and dangerous) are those who’ve suffered a temporary setback, such as a job loss or the abrupt departure of a spouse, and, especially if they are fortunate enough to get help from a professional early on, ” … they’ll be back at work or at least in settled, long-term accommodation within a year or two.”

Next come the “chronically poor … They move from garden shed to bed-sit, shelter to hostel to garage to friend’s sitting room floor, to the wheelie bins at the side of King’s College.”

These are followed by children who have “fallen out with their parents,” below which are ex-cons and ex-military, and “Right at the bottom of this abnormal heap are the people such as Stuart, the ‘chaotic homeless’ … When Stuart was first discovered, Kaspar Hauser-like, crouched on the lowest subterranean floor of a multi-storey car park, the regular homeless wanted nothing to do with him. They called him ‘Knife Man Dan,’ or ‘that mad bastard on Level D.’”

Wisely, the author doesn’t take credit for Stuart’s transformation, but it appears to be real — and unusual. “All chaotic people have good and bad periods, but Stuart genuinely appears to have turned over a new leaf. He has separated himself from the street community, got himself on to the council housing list, started a methadone programme to get off heroin, renegotiated his court fines and begun paying fortnightly installments, bought himself a discount computer.

“Many of Stuart’s old friends would rather die than take a shower and pay debts, and quite a few do: overdoses, liver or kidney failure or both, hypothermia. Rough sleepers have a life expectancy of forty-two years. They are thirty-five times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. In the great bureaucracy of the police and social support services, everyone is patting their backs at Stuart’s extraordinary return from this medieval existence towards respectability and secretly waiting for him to grab the nearest meat hook and run amok.”

As the chapters move forward and time reverses, we see the stages of Stuart’s disorientation, the things that happened to him, and also the things he caused to happen, the people and events that changed him, at age 12, from “… (in his mother’s words) a ‘real happy-go-lucky little boy’ … into the Clockwork Orange figure of the last two decades.”

I could list those milestones and monsters, but I’d rather not, because of all the books I’ve reviewed this year, this is the one I’d most like to see you read. It’s a very good book and it will be exciting to see what Alexander Masters comes up with next.

“Stuart: A Life Backwards” leaves the reader with quite a few memorable impressions, as only a very good book can do, the strongest of which is that the author made his subject come alive on each and every page. This first book is first class.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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