“[An] irreverent and remarkably candid memoir about growing up in wealthy eighties San Francisco . . . rollicking, ruthless . . . ultimately generous-hearted.” —Vogue
“A vivid mix of brio, self-awareness and sophistication . . . writing well is indeed the best revenge.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A monumental piece of work.” —Kirkus Reviews
“In the beginning we were happy. And we were always excessive. So in the beginning we were happy to excess.” With these opening lines Sean Wilsey takes us on an exhilarating tour of life in the strangest, wealthiest, and most grandiose of families.
Sean's blond-bombshell mother (one of the thinly veiled characters in Armistead Maupin's bestselling Tales of the City) is a 1980s society-page staple, regularly entertaining Black Panthers and movie stars in her marble and glass penthouse, "eight hundred feet in the air above San Francisco; an apartment at 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 enigmatic father uses a jet helicopter to drop Sean off at the video arcade and lectures his son on proper hygiene in public restrooms, "You should wash your hands first, before you use the urinal. Not after. Your penis isn't dirty. But your hands are."
When Sean, "the kind of child who sings songs to sick flowers," turns nine years old, his father divorces his mother and marries her best friend. Sean's life blows apart. His mother first invites him to commit suicide with her, then has a "vision" of salvation that requires packing her Louis Vuitton luggage and traveling the globe, a retinue of multiracial children in tow. Her goal: peace on earth (and a Nobel Prize). Sean meets Indira Gandhi, Helmut Kohl, Menachem Begin, and the pope, hoping each one might come back to San Francisco and persuade his father to rejoin the family. Instead, Sean is pushed out of San Francisco and sent spiraling through five high schools, till he finally lands at an unorthodox reform school cum "therapeutic community," in Italy.
With its multiplicity of settings and kaleidoscopic mix of preoccupations-sex, Russia, jet helicopters, seismic upheaval, boarding schools, Middle Earth, skinheads, home improvement, suicide, skateboarding, Sovietology, public transportation, massage, Christian fundamentalism, dogs, Texas, global thermonuclear war, truth, evil, masturbation, hope, Bethlehem, CT, eventual salvation (abridged list)—Oh the Glory of It All is memoir as bildungsroman as explosion.
Reviewed by A.J. JacobsHere'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. .