three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
user_rating: 
0

A Life Backwards

A-Stuart A Life BackwardsAlexander Masters met Stuart Shorter—alcoholic, drug addict, criminal (a veteran of 17 prisons), and victim—in 1998 while volunteering in a homeless shelter in Cambridge, England. The following year, when the two protested together over drug charges against the shelter’s staff, Masters saw a different Stuart, one who was holding a job and paying rent. Still, Stuart’s demons always lurked just beneath the surface. Stuart himself suggested the framework that would best put his life in perspective: "Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards." The book became a best seller in Britain, although the instantly famous Stuart was killed by a passing train—either by accident or suicide—in 2002, at the age of 33.
Delacorte. 320 pages. $20 ISBN: 0385340001

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Masters isn’t afraid to gaze at the tangled mound of flesh and fury left behind, never sanitizing Stuart by excising some of his more appalling exploits. … [The author’s] honesty elevates the book—as does Masters’ affecting line drawings—above most drug-addicted-nightmare-finds-redemption reads." Andrea Simakis

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Putting Stuart’s story on rewind provides distinct advantages, among them mounting suspense. … By highlighting a pattern of betrayal and abuse, from beatings by prison guards to sexual assaults made on young Stuart by the staff in state-run group homes, Masters secures our sympathy for his antihero." Polly Morrice

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"What [Masters] gives us … is a personal and humorous account of the scattershot events that molded this psychotic, violent, alcoholic, drug-addicted, ex-con, homeless man. … Like Johnson’s Boswell, Masters writes himself into Stuart’s story, an act of literary pluck that not only keeps the book from sinking under its own weighty subject matter, but turns it into a hugely entertaining read." Amy Woods Butler

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If there’s a downside to Stuart, it’s that Masters insists on finding the exact moment when Stuart slips from ‘one of us to one of them.’ … And in a post-James Frey world, you might cock an eyebrow at some of Stuart’s hilarious monologues that Masters renders as direct quotes." David Daley

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"It all sounds a little pat to me—the implied hypothesis that Stuart’s life can be seen as a puzzle to be first defined, then solved. … Whatever his tone or intention, [Masters] seems to have actually … invited Stuart to display his various social and physical deformities in front of an audience of his supposed elders and betters, forgetting that Stuart, for all his misfortunes, was a man, not a trained seal." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

Alexander Masters successfully manages to humanize the enigmatic Stuart. His personality is random enough and many of his faults considerable enough that a less-skilled observer might have labored to create empathy for—and even bring humor and life to—such a character. The recent and quite public outrage over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces calls into question Masters’s pithier dialogues with Stuart, and critic Carolyn See takes issue with the author’s judgment in his handling of the subject. The majority of reviewers, however, find the book, which has been adapted to the small screen for HBO, enlightening, poignant, and hauntingly humorous.