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Glancing over life's shoulder



There's this quandary among cosmologists regarding what they call the "arrow of time." Einstein showed that time was just another dimension, more or less coequal with the three familiar spatial dimensions and subject to the same mathematics. Brilliant, great, only a problem arose: We can easily retrace our steps in the spatial dimensions, returning to whence we have come. But we don't seem to be able to do the same along the dimension of time. Yet, aside from a few discrete exceptions, nothing in the mathematics of space-time predicts or explains the direction of the arrow. We should be able to reverse our course through time, but we can't.

Which is too bad, because a life of long decline and deepening degradation -- a life like Stuart Shorter's -- could, in reverse, be seen as a life leading toward increasing vitality, happiness, innocence and then a warm, swaddled forgetfulness, finally ending in a moment of passion. Maybe that's why Stuart insisted that Alexander Masters rewrite his biography, rewrite it in reverse, "like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was?" It's the only way to make a heartwarming end of Stuart's foreshortened life.

Stuart was a homeless man in Cambridge, England, overfond of knives, heroin and alcohol, a serial convict of great chaotic rages but also of surprising intelligence. Alexander Masters met him while working at a homeless outreach center and grew close to him while the two campaigned together for the release of the director and the manager of the center, both jailed for refusing to turn over to the police the names of those they had kicked out for drug possession.

That's not to say Masters much liked Stuart, the man he privately thought of as "Stuart, my friend, you little nightmare." Stuart would never have let him get away with such fuzzy romantic revisions. Stuart himself -- not just some idealization of the man held in the writer's mind -- read through Masters' drafts, constantly berating him and refusing to let him rarefy his life into a tidy lesson drawn in Euclidean lines. You get all of Stuart or none of him, take all the sinner and still no saint. The only mercy is to watch his shattered life fall up and reassemble itself as time turns around to contemplate Stuart in reverse.

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