Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters
Stuart: A Life Backwards is a memoir of a drug-addicted, alcoholic homeless man called Stuart, written by his friend Alexander Masters, who met him through his work with a homeless charity. Stuart killed himself just before the book was published, and Masters tells his story 'backwards' as this is supposed to make the book read like a Tom Clancy thriller: who or what killed Stuart? It sounds like a fascinating premise for a book. Homelessness is an issue everyone has an opinion on whether they actually know anything about it or not, and a story about ‘what it’s really like’ from the inside would surely be welcome. It also sounds like it would make a refreshing change from the usual “rags to riches” – or “everyday life to celebrity” – memoirs, which always seem somehow to fail to mention the fact that the vast majority of people on this planet do not achieve the ‘success’ they preach, no matter how hard they work, or how many sacrifices they make, or how they hone their talents. But Masters’s book, unfortunately, is a failure on every level. I agree with its subject, Stuart, who found an earlier draft “bollocks boring” (it hasn't improved).
Some reviewers of the book said they were expecting a dull, ‘worthy’, or ‘politically correct’ story, but were relieved and delighted to find that it was instead funny and honest. I must have had the opposite expectation. I was indeed expecting a book that was ‘worthy’ of its subject matter – that would attempt either to make sense of homelessness, or provide a sympathetic account of what being homeless is actually like. And funny? Well, no, calling troubled homeless people criminals and psychos is just not funny, and if that’s political correctness gone mad, then count me on the side of political correctness. Honest? Liberal reviewers perhaps found an analysis that chimed with their ideology ‘honest’, but I found it politically incompetent and offensive. Not having anything to say about the origins or causes of homelessness is hailed as avoiding ‘easy answers’, or as respecting the difficulties of each individual case, when in fact it is just having nothing to say at all. At one point in the story, Masters writes: "I don't know what to say. I fall back on platitudes." That should be printed in big bold letters on the cover.
The only thing of interest at all in the book is what Stuart himself says about his experiences. But this is obscured because Masters refuses to take that point of view seriously – indeed, he cannot seem to let a comment by Stuart pass without ridiculing it. He views Stuart as a petulant child whose actions make him his own worst enemy and who brings his problems on himself. He views homeless as a stubborn stain that just won’t come out, no matter how much the forces of good – the government, the police, the social services, charities – scrub at it. When Stuart is attacked by the police and beaten up by prison screws, this must be because he deserved it or had done something wrong. When the Home Secretary is confronted by a protest about the jailing of two charity workers, Masters is embarrassed that the campaign's representatives turned out to be horrible scummy homeless types. He is even more horrified, as a ‘monarchist’, when those same representatives express a political point of view. When Stuart gets angry or goes into a rage, this is because he is being mad or childish. Stuart's view that the intervention of social workers, doctors and police and so on is as much about social control by a 'system' with other concerns than that of philanthropy is obviously paranoid nonsense as far as Masters is concerned. In short, Masters is, as Stuart rightly says, a "fucking, wanky, middle-class cunt-fuck". Spot on, Stuart. What a shame he didn’t find a writer for his story with the same talent for accuracy and brevity.
In conclusion, then, Stuart is excruciatingly badly written, patronising, boring, and fails to say anything important about the major social and political issue it is supposedly addressing. The reviewers loved it and it won the Guardian First Book Award.