Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Oh the Glory of it All by Sean Wilsy

Sean Wilsy was a child of privilege who spent his early life in the 1970's:

"eight-hundred feet in the air above San Francisco; in an apartment at the the top of a building at the top of a hill: full of light, full of voices, full of windows, full of water and bridges and hills."

His mother, Pat, was a socialite/newspaper columnist. The queen of San Francisco society, she regularly welcomed activists, musicians, diplomats, movie stars, and everything in between for informal “round table discussions” over which she would preside. His father, Alfred, was a dairy industry tycoon turn real-estate magnate who had more money than God.

His first ten years were idyllic. In fact they were more than idyllic. It was calm before the storm- too good to be true. At the age of ten, having never witnessed so much as an argument between his parents, Wilsy’s father leaves his mother. The bitter lengthy divorce is the talk of San Francisco society. Herb Caen, who loathed Pat, regularly covers the sordid details it in his column.

Several months later Wilsy’s father marries Dede, a family friend who up until that time had been "part my big sister, part mom's little sister, part something else" It seems the something else was Judas. Dede had been having an affair with Wilsy’s father and apparently it was her intentions all along were to usurp the throne as it were.

Just like that, Sean’s world turns into a forced jaunt between hostile camps. His mother, who is clearly histrionic, initially takes the divorce as a death sentence. Spending weeks in her bedroom eating ice cream with the shades drawn, at one point even suggesting to 11 year old Sean that they commit suicide. Eventually she rallies to become an advocate for global peace- leading a pack of children around in the hopes of healing the world (how this would solve the planets ailments is never quite clear. The role of being a mother is almost an afterthought.

Dede’s metamorphosis from confidant to nemesis is astonishingly abrupt. The portrait of her as wickedly scheming stepmother would be clichĂ©, were the reality of it not so resplendent and Wilsy’s recounting so deft. His father, having fallen under the progressive spell of Dede grows colder and colder. After a time, treating Wilsy’s step brothers like sons and Wilsy more like the unwanted child. Naturally, lacking the real example of an adult role model, Sean begins to act out. His father decides to throw money at the problem, as the rich are prone to do.

Thus begins Sean’s boarding school odyssey. Taking up the bulk of the second half of the book, his experiences are equally humorous, humiliating, poignant, and awful. He’s kicked out of at least half a dozen before finally arriving at one in Italy where the teachers actually care about him.

So it is that he must traverse the Atlantic to finally find/accept himself. The last portion of the book finds him in New York City all grown up with a promising writing career. It is here that he is able to make peace with parents who were too narcissistic to ever provide a proper upbringing.

Splaying one's memoir out over 480 pages(!) when only half way through life may seem a bit presumptuous. But when you’re upbringing was as big a train wreck as Wilsy’s and you posses the innate ability to translate it with wit and candor into such deliciously addictive fare, all may be forgiven.

Oh the Glory of it All by Sean Wilsy

Penguin Press 2005

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