man lying on park bench maybe sleeping

I was drawn to it because I’d heard it was a biography . . . told in reverse. A life story written backwards. How can you tell the story of a person’s life backwards? Isn’t a life story, by definition, a moving forward through time? And even if you do succeed in writing a backwards life story, won’t that just confuse the reader?

What I discovered, however, is that telling a biography backwards is a good way to avoid, in J.D. Salinger’s indelible phrase, “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” Book beginnings that consist of lists of biographical details about someone’s parents and childhood do tend to be slow and boring.

Stuart Shorter, the hero of the biography Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters, has a different idea for his biographer. (I will call them by their first names going forward, because that is how they are referred to in the book.) Stuart, in Alexander’s words, is “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” and a “thief, hostage taker, . . . and sociopathic street raconteur.” He is also loveable, funny, and smart.

One example of Stuart’s lovability, humor, and smarts occurs after Alexander asks him to read his manuscript about Stuart’s life. Stuart explains to Alexander that the draft needs work: “It’s bollocks boring.” (Stuart and Alexander live in Cambridge, England.) Stuart says Alexander should rewrite it in the style of Tom Clancy. And then Stuart says something surprising: “Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.”

Alexander takes Stuart’s advice. He succeeds so well that he gets a glowing review from none other than Zadie Smith. (Not to mention me!) Thus, the reader does not learn about the travesties of Stuart’s childhood until the end of the book.

This structure is uniquely fitting for a biography of a man who lived on the streets or in prison for much of his life. Alexander describes Stuart as a “chaotic” type of homeless person. He writes of the chaotic homeless, “cause and effect are not connected in the usual way.” The reader, in getting a jumbled account of Stuart’s life—for the narrative goes backwards fitfully, periodically jumping forward again—experiences it in a way somehow congruent with the way Stuart himself does.

And the book does end up being a sort of mystery. The question set forth at the outset, and revealed (to the extent that such a thing can be revealed) by the end, is: what caused homelessness in one person’s case? Despite being published almost twenty years ago, Stuart: A Life Backwards remains special and important because much ink has been expended in describing how society does or does not, and might or might not, help homeless people; but very little ink has been expended in recounting the life of a homeless person from the homeless person’s perspective. You can’t begin to understand a person’s choices until you see the world from their eyes.

Have you ever lived on the streets?