BooksReview

"Stuart: A Life Backwards" Measures Value in Raw Humanity

Madeline Poage ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Stuart Shorter was killed at age thirty-three by the 11:15 London to King’s Lynn train.

This is not a spoiler.

Stuart: A Life Backwards, published in 2006 by Delacorte Press, is author Alexander Masters’ second attempt to pen the life of Stuart Shorter, a.k.a. Psycho, a.k.a. Knife Man Dan—an ex-homeless, ex-junkie, ex-convict alcoholic thief with muscular dystrophy and a fondness for knives. When Masters presented his subject-turned-friend with his initial final draft, Stuart challenged him to throw it out and start over, deeming the finished product “bollocks boring.” He wanted his biography to be “a bestseller, like what Tom Clancy writes,” and offered some advice: do it backwards, like a murder mystery. Answer the question, as Stuart put it, “what killed the boy that was me?”

"Stuart: A Life Backwards" Cover. Source: Delacorte Press
“Stuart: A Life Backwards” Cover. Source: Delacorte Press

So perhaps the most offbeat biography ever written begins with its consistent tragicomic style—a humorously meta-explanation of how the book the reader holds came to be, as well as the somber death of its subject. Masters’ control over language carries such casual nuances that it rarely feels like a well-researched, thorough biography, but rather like a conversation with a friend who has a particularly dry sense of humor. Too often, biographies feel as thin as the paper on which they’re printed—relying on narrow, historical interest or the worldly importance of the subjects. Masters doesn’t have that luxury, and the result is a dynamic exploration of how one “happy-go-lucky” little boy spiraled into the brutal life of the “chaotic” homeless.

Stuart captivates as the disenfranchised outsider with a personality on par with a nuclear ticking time bomb. Profanities slipping into his speech as if some ineffable part of him would be missing otherwise; Stuart is articulate, cautiously philosophical, and disconcertingly insightful. He’s a modern Jekyll and Hyde, an easygoing soul with a tendency to “yap, yap, yap.” At times he is transformed by his “black mists” into a self-mutilating, hostage-taking sociopath. Deadpan in his recollection of harrowing events, Stuart’s voice is almost innocent, endearingly so. Masters himself plays an important second fiddle as the middle-class, neurotypical perspective, completing their unlikely friendship, which ends up constructing the emotional spine of the story.

By taking a more personal approach rather than an omniscient record of facts, every word feels desperately honest, charged with the urgent need to give Stuart literary justice. Masters skillfully maneuvers the pitfalls of stereotyping, refusing to present himself as Stuart’s savior, or their camaraderie as an idyllic merging of classes. Stuart, who naturally defies simplification, is never painted as a saint or martyr, nor as an irredeemable psychopath. Indeed, Masters doesn’t seem particularly interested in drawing any concrete conclusions, political or otherwise, about homelessness, “the System,” or Stuart himself. There’s no squeezing any social justice slant from Stuart Shorter, no neatly packaging the man with logic or reason, and the lack of an agenda is refreshing. From this, Stuart is free to live and breathe on the pages as he truly is—heartbreakingly, unbearably human.  

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