- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Ships in 1 to 3 days
More copies of this ISBN
Stuart: A Life Backwardsby Alexander Masters
Synopses & Reviews
In this extraordinary book, Alexander Masters has created a moving portrait of a troubled man, an unlikely friendship, and a desperate world few ever see. A gripping who-done-it journey back in time, it begins with Masters meeting a drunken Stuart lying on a sidewalk in Cambridge, England, and leads through layers of hell…back through crimes and misdemeanors, prison and homelessness, suicide attempts, violence, drugs, juvenile halls and special schools–to expose the smiling, gregarious thirteen-year-old boy who was Stuart before his long, sprawling, dangerous fall.
Shocking, inspiring, and hilarious by turns, Stuart: A Life Backwards is a writer’s quest to give voice to a man who, beneath his forbidding exterior, has a message for us all: that every life–even the most chaotic and disreputable–is a story worthy of being told.
"The British antihero of this moving biography started with teenage glue-sniffing, petty thievery and gang brawls, then graduated to heroin and major thievery. He endured prison stints and led a 'medieval existence' on the streets, finally emerging into triumphant semistability as an 'ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath' with only occasional episodes of violence and suicidal impulses. In Cambridge, England, Masters, an advocate for the homeless, befriended Stuart — someone for whom 'cause and effect are not connected in the usual way' — and found him at times obnoxious and repellent, but also funny and honest. Masters notes bad genes and childhood sexual molestation, and critiques 'the System' of British welfare and criminal justice institutions that help with one hand and brutalize with the other, but he doesn't reduce Stuart's intractable problems to simple dysfunction or societal neglect. By eschewing easy answers (the easy answers — don't drink, don't use, don't steal, don't play with knives — are precisely the hardest for Stuart), he accords full humanity to Stuart's stumbling efforts to grapple with his demons. Hilarious and clear-eyed, the author's superbly drawn portrait of Stuart is an unforgettable literary evocation and a small masterpiece of moral empathy and imagination. Photos. (June 6)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A few years ago Alexander Masters, a mathematics and physics student at Cambridge, began working at a daytime drop-in shelter for what are referred to in Britain as 'rough sleepers.' He had a pretty good idea that the homeless people he was working with weren't just actors between jobs or former Beverly Hills matrons whose ex-husbands had employed crackerjack lawyers to deprive them of their money.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) No, when he came to work, he expected to see 'smackheads, crackheads, psychotics, epileptics, schizophrenics, self-harmers, beggars, buskers, car thieves, sherry pushers, ciderheads, just-released-that-morning convicts, ex-army, ex-married-men-with-young-children-who'd-discovered-their-wife-in-bed-with-two-members-of-the-university-rowing-team-at-the-same-time.' In other words, Masters is matter-of-fact from the start about drawing the line between our sort and the other sort, who can't manage their lives or keep a roof over their heads. Masters never adequately explains why he, as a sometime academic, is drawn to this segment of the population, but early in this story, two things happen that will change his life. Ruth Wyner and John Brock, the director and deputy of Wintercomfort, the shelter where the author works, are arrested for aiding, abetting or somehow condoning the sale of heroin on their premises. It's a patently false charge, but Wyner — acting on her ideals, which is not necessarily the best idea — won't give up the names of the possible dealers to the cops. She and her assistant are summarily tossed into the slammer: 'John had been given four years in prison; Ruth, five.' The committed idealists who have been working for them are, of course, righteously enraged, and they begin a protracted protest. Many of the homeless they have worked with join the protest, too. Among them is a young man the author had met — on the pavement — back in 1998. 'Stuart Clive Shorter ... pressed in a doorway next to the discount picture-framing shop, round the corner from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He had an oddly twisted way of sitting on his square of cardboard, as if his limbs were half made of rubber. Pasty skin, green bomber jacket, broken gym shoes, hair cropped to the scalp and a week's worth of stubble; his face, the left side livelier than the right, was almost mongoloid. Several of his teeth were missing; his mouth was a sluice.' The first words Stuart spoke to the author were these: 'As soon as I get the opportunity I'm going to top meself.' Stuart does not kill himself just yet; instead, the two men find themselves increasingly involved in the protests for the caretakers of Wintercomfort. Masters is drawn to Stuart for reasons that, again, are never explicitly made clear. Certainly Stuart is 'interesting' (the quotes are mine), and he has a lively reserve of small talk. He has, over the years, cut his own throat, knifed several victims (never fatally), sniffed glue to excess, done plenty of heroin, drank way too much, mutilated himself repeatedly, crashed cars, brutalized friends and strangers, and once, when threatened by the police, threatened to kill his own child. The author decides to write a biography of Stuart and (at Stuart's suggestion) to write it 'backwards' — i.e., to start in the present (when Stuart, by a twist of crazy luck, has been given a government-subsidized apartment while waiting for one of his trials to come up and seems to have managed, however precariously, to have gotten his life together) and then go backward in time to examine the confluence of incident and circumstance that presumably destroyed the innocent child he once was. Those incidents are harrowing beyond words. Some shouldn't be given away, but for starters: Stuart's birth father was a homicidal brute who had muscular dystrophy and passed that on to his son; Stuart's brother, before he killed himself, committed a series of particularly heinous crimes; and Stuart himself, because he failed rope climbing at age 5, was put into a series of hellish special schools for the disabled. When he was 11, he finally fought back against a bully, and he liked the sense of power that violence gave him so much that he took it up for life. 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. More disturbing is a passage in which the author describes inviting Stuart to spend the weekend at a country home. 'Secretly, I have also asked a bunch of friends — a writer, a custodian of an academic trust, a Research Fellow in art history, experts in the underprivileged life, all of us — to judge whether this man is really worth a book.' Stuart passes muster; he instructs, he entertains. But was Masters being intentionally ironic or self-effacing when he wrote that sentence? Was he really auditioning Stuart as material? Whatever his tone or intention, he seems to have actually done this — 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. This book has been widely praised in Britain, including being called 'funny' more than once. I found it both condescending and intolerably sad. Stuart was born to a terrible life and lived it out to the end. Masters wrote a charming narrative about it all and changed his own life for the better. The line between their sort and our sort has rarely been so clearly drawn." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Hailed in Britain as "devastating," "inspirational" ("Saturday Telegraph"), "heartbreaking" ("Saturday Telegraph Magazine") and "hilarious" ("The Spectator"), "Stuart" is the tragic yet ultimately uplifting story of a boy whose life left the rails early and just kept going.
About the Author
ALEXANDER MASTERS was born in New York in 1965 and studied physics and mathematics in London and Cambridge. For the last five years he has worked in hostels for the homeless and run a street newspaper. He has also been an agony aunt, a travel writer, an illustrator, and a bedspread salesman.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like