"A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are," writes Sean Wilsey, and indeed, Oh the Glory of it All
is compelling proof of his exhaustive personal quest. It's no surprise that as a kid in the '80s, Wilsey found similarities between his own life and his beloved Lord of the Rings
and Star Wars
--his journey was fraught with unnerving characters too.
Wilsey's father was a distant, wealthy man who used a helicopter when a moped would do and whose mandates included squeegeeing the stall after every shower. Much of Wilsey's youth was spent as subservient to, or rebelling against this imposing man. But the maternal figures in Wilsey's childhood were no less affecting. His mother, a San Francisco society butterfly turned globe-trotting peace promoter, seemed to behave only in extremes--either trying to convince young Sean to commit suicide with her, or arranging impromptu meetings with the Pope and Mikhail Gorbachev. And Dede, his demon of a stepmother, would have made the Brothers Grimm shiver.
As always with memoirs one must take expansive sections of recalled dialogue with a grain of salt, but Wilsey's short, unflinching sentences keep his outlandish story moving too quickly for much quibbling. In the end, Wilsey says, "It took the unlikely combination of the three of them--mother, father, stepmother--to make me who I am." It's a fairly basic conclusion after 479 pages of turning every stone, but it's also one that renders his story--more than shocking or glorious--human. --Brangien Davis
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Reviewed by A.J. Jacobs
Here's something I've realized: if my son shows any hint of writing talent, I'm going to be damn careful whenever he's in the room. We live in a dangerous era. Not too long ago, the average person could go around making mistakes, saying stupid things and being occasionally horrible, and who would know? Those days are over. Now, the Internet is cluttered with tell-all blogs by every schlub who's mastered the hunt and peck method. And bookstores are packed with memoirs by people who haven't even done anything to merit a measly entry in Who's Who
(and I include myself in that category). Maybe this will inspire a new morality—the morality of dread. The world will be frightened into acting nice for fear of being humiliated in print. Yeah, probably not.In any case, these notions struck me while reading Oh the Glory of It All
by Sean Wilsey—a strange, fascinating, complicated and self-involved memoir about the author's boyhood among San Francisco's social elite. The book contains perhaps the most evil parental figure since Joan Crawford. That woman is named Dede, the wicked stepmother of the tale. Dede allegedly stole Wilsey's father from his mom, banned afternoon TV, monitored Wilsey's phone calls, played endless mind games, told Wilsey to change his favorite color from red, and on and on. I'm not sure which Dede will find more disturbing—her foibles being laid bare or the fact that Wilsey admits to masturbating to her photo and smelling her underwear.Dede is joined by Wilsey's equally intriguing biological parents. There's his mother, a drama queen who once dated Frank Sinatra, held salons, hosted a talk show, asked Wilsey to commit suicide with her and became a globe-trotting peace activist. And then there's his father, a dairy-business millionaire, helicopter pilot and lothario. These three characters form the heart of the book. Wilsey also discusses his pot-steeped days at various boarding schools, including a bizarre cultlike institution in Italy that encouraged lots of weeping and hugging. But the parts about the family are the book's strongest. It's a startlingly honest tale. I can't imagine he left out a single humiliating detail, unless he had improper relations with his goldfish. Sometimes Wilsey comes off as a sympathetic figure, someone you'd like in the cubicle next to yours. But almost as often, he's completely malevolent—he made his roommate cry by sabotaging the poor guy's top bunk so that it collapsed onto the floor. And yet, when you begin to think of the book as just the tale of a poor-little-rich-boy, there's one thing that saves it: the writing, which is vivid, detailed, deep and filled with fresh metaphors. So if my son does end up lambasting me in his memoir, I hope he does it with as much style as Wilsey. A.J. Jacobs is an editor at large at
Esquire and the author of
The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (S&S
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