Bookforum | Summer 2005
 
     
 

Near the end of his epic new memoir, Sean Wilsey throws down the gauntlet: "I fear the first reviewer who tells me I feel too sorry for myself, I'm too messy, I bounce when I walk, I've taken up too much of your time." Although I can't vouch for the odd bounce in his step, Wilsey has little to fear. Hailing from the Dave Eggers/ McSweeney's camp (he is an editor at large of that literary journal), Wilsey has jumped on the tell-all bandwagon, taking the baton from his compadre Eggers and media darling Augusten Burroughs to pen a "look at me" (but rarely "poor me") account of his unconventional and damaged life. Wilsey's concerns about his book's reception may seem rather trivial, but coming as they do at the conclusion of nearly five hundred pages, they in fact belie a thoughtful and confident narrative, one that is equally heartbreaking and at times approaches genius with its raw honesty and emotional charge.

"It was Dallas and Dynasty and Danielle Steel come to life. It was like being trapped in a television show. Having to live and make sense of the world through its rules, scenarios, plotlines, cliff-hangers." Such is Wilsey's explanation of his extravagant, explosive, and destructive upbringing, the story of which is perfectly in tune with our tabloid-obsessed culture. A surfeit of boldfaced names, from world leaders to media personalities, lend the book a sensational thrill (and easy publicity hook). But like any good wasp, Wilsey appears uncomfortable with all the name-dropping and undercuts the glossy facade by being appropriately unimpressed and reflective. The script, then, of Wilsey's first twenty-odd years might read something like this:

Scene 1: You're nine. Dad divorces Mom in a media frenzy and marries Mom's
best friend after screwing her on the side for years.

Scene 2: Mom implodes and suggests a suicide pact in which you and she jump off the balcony of your penthouse together.

Scene 3: Mom is resurrected as a globe-trotting peace activist who frolics with heads of state like Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl.

Scene 4: Dad disowns you. You run away from or get kicked out of four high schools before finding salvation at a monastery/ halfway house/reform school in Italy.

And that's just the beginning. Wilsey's narrative, told against the backdrop of the haute echelons of San Francisco society, is a classic tale of excess and redemption, of a "rich, white, punk fuckup" overcoming the ills caused by his self-obsessed parents. The arc may not be a new one, and Wilsey may get bogged down in the exhaustive details of his many indiscretions, but his attempt to reconcile his past with his well-intentioned and colorful family makes for some very good storytelling. Wilsey has composed an expansive and tragic tour——one that succeeds in being amusing but not smug; sincere but not self-indulgent. It's all too easy these days for literary memoirs to come across as nothing more than articulate whining. But Wilsey ably dodges that fate. Oh the Glory of It All comes with an impeccable pedigree, and the good news is that it actually deserves every bit of the attention it will receive.

 
     
     
 
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OH THE GLORY OF IT ALL BY SEAN WILSEY.
NEW YORK: PENGUIN PRESS.
496 PAGES. $26.
BUY NOW