The World According to Stuart

Article excerpt

The world according to Stuart "Alexander Masters, Stuart: A Life Backwards. London: Fourth Estate, 2005.292 pages. Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.263 pages.

AS WE WALK THROUGH CITY STREETS, IT NORMALLY DOES NOT trouble us that we know almost nothing about the lives of those whose paths we cross. City life is supposed to provide freedom from responsibility for others, apart from our family or friends. Everyone else just gets a casual glance - except for when a "street person" appears, someone obviously destitute or desperate. Our first instinct is to look away, before they can make us aware of something we would rather avoid: the needs of strangers.

Alexander Masters, a freelance writer in Cambridge, England, chose to keep looking at a homeless man he noticed on the street, Stuart Shorter. He has written Stuart's biography, and made the claim that his is "an important life." Most people who read this book will agree. It is the funny, fantastic and agonizing story of someone who made a complete mess of his life, and did much harm to others along the way. Failure, of course, is often more interesting than success; and absolute failure becomes more than that, a trip into the infernal regions beneath the affluent surface of Western cities. Stuart underwent pain, and inflicted pain, far beyond anything most of us have experienced. Then he chose to end his life - like Jesus, at the age of 33. Masters hints that Stuart, too, may have died for our sins, though one of the virtues of this book is that it suggests many other ways of telling the life of Stuart.

Stuart was one of the "chaotic homeless": people who have no settled homes or relationships, who are rarely employed, who are unhealthy, violent and addicted to drugs. In the government agencies that deal with the homeless, the chaotic are often considered beyond repair. Their life expectancy in England is 42 years. They are 35 times as likely to commit suicide as an average person. Ten of them are male for each female. Why? Masters suggests that women may cope better with failure and disappointment. This is not a very satisfactory explanation, but one of the themes of Stuart is that it isn't easy to explain anything about homelessness. The problems in a life like Stuart's are so comprehensive, so majestic in their destructive power, that the standard sociological explanations of them look like the most feeble of clichés.

Masters does offer reasons why Stuart ended up living on the bottom level of the Lion's Yard parking garage in Cambridge. Many reasons. His father was a gypsy who walked out when Stuart was small; Stuart was dyslexic and had muscular dystrophy; he was sexually abused by his brother, who later killed himself; he damaged his brain through glue-sniffing, head-butting, car-crashing and using heroic amounts of alcohol and heroin; his marriage failed (when he held his infant son hostage at knife-point); he had borderline personality disorder; he did time in 16 prisons. As Masters sums it up, "It isn't a bedsit and employment that [the chaotic] need; it is a new brain. At best we can keep them steady with drugs. At worst, we must throw them in jail, and hope that we are not in the room when they decide to hang themselves."

In fact, "The System" (as Stuart calls the social services) provides much more for the homeless in England than drugs and restraint. Over the three years of their acquaintance, the government paid Stuart more than Masters, a Cambridge graduate in physics, managed to earn for himself. Once classified as unemployed and disabled, Stuart received about $400 a week and free rent. He regularly found ways to spend $150 a day on heroin. Apart from direct support, Stuart had guidance from the small army of social workers and administrators who deal with homelessness (Masters served in this army for a while). Theodore Dalrymple, in the other book under review here, described a hostel he visited that had 91 residents and 41 staff, most of them working behind locked doors so that they wouldn't be bothered by their clients. …