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Recommended Reads: Stuart … A Life backwards

Written by Chris Routledge, 3rd October 2007

This recommendation is posted by Sara Pendergast, writer, painter, working in Washington State.

Stuart ... A Life Backwards: Alexander Masters’ Portrait of the Important Man on Level D

The underclass---occasionally homeless---roaming through streets, huddling in corners, or sprawling on park benches, don’t scare me. I used to work in Detroit, the city that T-shirts proclaimed was “no place for wimps.” Pregnant with my first child, I’d make my way from the bowels of the Joe Louis parking garage, along a nearly abandoned underpass, toward the financial district. The journey took me daily from one extreme of society to another, from bums to business. I’d see the same people sleeping on beds of crumpled boxes near the concrete pillars of the underpass, the same folks asked me for money retelling the same story one day to the next. Mornings would offer remnants of an active underworld, syringes littering the sidewalks, the occasional cast off shoe, a torched van still smoldering on the curb. Alarmed at first by the contrast between the lives of the homeless and the bustling executives and feeling vulnerable because of my physical state, I grew to understand as the months passed and my bulging belly forced my purposeful walk to slow to a waddle that there was a sort of rhythm to life on the streets, just as there was a rhythm in business. It was a rhythm I didn’t quite understand, but did not fear. The homeless I passed daily recognized me, and we’d nod our hellos. We too had a comfortable rhythm, one that kept me walking briskly by without asking questions.

The notion of how street people live, and more, why they live on the street left me personally when I moved from Detroit to a place where homeless rarely pause. Thankfully, across the pond in London, Alexander Masters took the time to stop and ask questions. In his brilliant biography Stuart ... A Life Backwards cast light on the bowels of street life in a way that brought the cardboard huddled masses from the Detroit underpass screeching back to the forefront of my mind. Any one of them could have been Stuart Shorter, Masters’ subject.

Shorter is a glue-sniffing, self-destructive, occasionally violent, chaotic homeless man with a fascination for knives from London’s streets. While these details don’t normally bode well for a compassionate tale of humanity, Masters’ book is. Masters doesn’t cast Shorter as a shadowy figure collapsed by the door of the pharmacy, but as an opinionated, busy fellow who commands attention. The detail comes from Masters’ own developing friendship with Shorter. Shorter and Masters work together to win the freedom of two imprisoned social workers, share dinner, loan each other money, and never shy away from telling each other exactly what they think. Masters made me feel like I was right there with them, slumped on the couch listening to Shorter rant about Masters’ poor writing and offering genuinely helpful editorial advice.

The deference and compassion Masters afforded Shorter enabled him to enjoy his friend’s humanity, his wit, and his charm. Contrasting those qualities with Shorter’s life of suffering, Masters’ reveals the true horror Shorter struggled with his entire life. The rhythm I had detected on the streets in Detroit was a rhythm of survival brought into vivid detail in Masters’ book. Rewritten after Shorter’s critique that it was “bollocks boring,” the final manuscript sheds light on “a man with an important life,” as Masters put it. Moreover, it offers a compelling reason why we should all care.


By Sara Pendergast

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