Glorying in Sean Wilsey's Vivid Memoir

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Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Seventeen, Fast Company, Salon and on public radio's This American Life. Sittenfeld was born and raised in Cincinnati. A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop, she currently lives in Philadelphia. Sittenfeld's first novel Prep was a runaway national bestseller, with currently half a million copies in print. The Man of My Dreams, just out from Random House this summer, is her second novel and also is a national bestseller.

Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.

To produce a memoir worth reading, a person needs to have either writing talent or else juicy material. Sean Wilsey has both in abundance, and that's what makes Oh the Glory of It All so extraordinary. It's a tale of over-the-top people and places described with such precision that they come explosively and thrillingly alive. This is a book that's many things at once, among them an indictment of parental selfishness, a genealogical research project, a personal catharsis, a love letter to San Francisco, a peek into a world of lavish privilege, and an exposé of American boarding schools. But above all, it's just a really good story that's really well told.

In 1979, when Sean Wilsey was nine years old, his outrageously wealthy parents divorced, and local and national media covered the proceedings. His father soon remarried his mother's former best friend, an alternately charming and cruel woman named Dede. Dede is perhaps the most manipulative person I've ever encountered, either in life or on the page, which is to say she makes for riveting reading. Wilsey's mother, meanwhile, is equally fascinating and complex: Raised by evangelical ministers in rural Texas, she becomes a San Francisco writer and socialite. After the divorce, when she's not hiding out in bed and discussing her suicidal fantasies with her 11-year-old son, she's traveling around the world leading an organization called Children as Teachers of Peace. As part of his mother's delegation, Sean himself meets the Pope and gets drunk off vodka in Russia with other 12-year-olds.

As he bounces around among his parents, stepmother, and jerky stepbrothers, Sean is increasingly seen as a troublemaker. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after he's shipped off to, and then kicked out of, a series of boarding schools. He starts at prestigious St. Mark's in Massachusetts but before long finds himself at a locked-down school of last resort in the California wilderness. The boarding school section of the book confirms what a terrific writer Wilsey is. At this point in the book, Wilsey’s story could become less interesting because he is apart from the family members who are, literally and figuratively, such rich characters. Instead, it becomes more so. Wilsey is so funny and observant that he's able to show the weirdness and idiosyncrasies not just of those who are inherently colorful but of everyone. Also during this time, he catches a case of crab lice recounted with such disgusting hilarity that just reading about it will make you itchy.

Yet, impressively, Wilsey doesn't rely only on his own memories. He researches the history of both the city of San Francisco and his own family, and he conducts interviews with relatives and acquaintances who are still living. By relying on these sources, Wilsey strengthens the book's credibility, making it clear that he's less intent on seeking revenge than on trying, like an anthropologist, to understand why his family turned out the way it did. And he's as unstintingly honest about himself as he is about everyone else.

Oh the Glory of It All is a compulsively readable book, and it seems as if there must have been some compulsion in the writing of it, too. Propelled by love, anger, and a manic eye for detail, it feels like a book Wilsey simply had to write.

NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.

Excerpt: 'Oh the Glory of It All'

Taken from the Prologue

MOM LOVED her luncheons. Mom loved emotions. "All these strangers, they sobbed like babies," she told me recently. "And they became my dear, dear friends." The apartment was an accelerator for emotions, a controlled environment where they could be witnessed without effect. Neutralized and admired. We were eight hundred feet above it all. Little did I—who had known only happiness or loneliness—know the variety emotion could provide. That pain moved in mysterious ways. That it could fly, swim, tunnel; was amphibious, ambidextrous, aerodynamic; a breeze and a smothering blanket and a storm. That emotions would knock our tower down to the ground, and none of these strangers would help us.

WHEN I WAS five Mom and Dad rented a house in the Napa Valley, and Dad befriended a man called Frenchie Meyers who wore suspenders and owned a junkyard nearby—fifty acres covered in thirty-foot heaps of smashed cars, flattired trailers full of old glass doorknobs, two aircraft hangars (one stuffed full of forklifts, tractors, and power tools and guarded by Sam, a glass-blue-eyed wolf dog, the other converted into a machine shop and guarded by an anvil of a bulldog named Jezebel). Dad let me play in an old school bus parked beneath an ancient willow tree. How old? Centuries old, Dad informed me. I played for hours beneath that green canopy, in that yellow bus, while Dad talked to Frenchie.

Dad made Frenchie an offer to buy it all, said Frenchie could keep on living in his little house on the edge of the junk, rent-free, forever. Frenchie accepted. Dad built a hill—flood protection—and Mom's dream house on the hill. Mom landscaped the junk into trees and lawns and an hourglass-shaped carp pond. The school bus got towed. I built a tree house in the willow. I tried to construct a car out of Frenchie's leftover junk. On the weekends Dad wore a JC Penney work shirt and led a crew of men planting grass, grapes, and flowers, and shoring up the eroding banks of the Napa River, which ran along the property's edge. Perfect happiness started flowing. Mom brought Dad cooling beverages while he worked. We had picnics. I made friends with a Mexican kid down the road, and we hammered nails into the tree house. At night Dad showed us World War I movies on an old projector. Mom's best friend, Dede Traina (pronounced Tryeen- nah), had a place nearby, and she was over all the time. Hundreds of people came to our housewarming party, where a Catholic priest blessed the premises and Benny Goodman played live. This party blended into another and another. The biggest was a Gone with the Wind ball, when Dede upstaged everyone by wearing Scarlett O'Hara's green-and-white hoop dress from the movie, refabricated by the original designer; it was like the willow tree, and I crawled underneath, following her sons, Todd and Trevor. There was a whole world under there!

Mom said, "Sean, get out!"

Dede said, "No, he can stay."

I wanted to spend my whole life there.

MOM'S PREVIOUS best friend had died in a mysterious fire while living in Mom's old apartment, shortly after my parents were married. Dede Traina arrived in Mom's life in the early seventies (around the same time my shrink told Mom to stop spending so much time with me). Dede was new to San Francisco, fifteen years younger than Mom, in her early thirties, unhappily married. Mom liked Dede. Dad liked that Dede came from an old East Coast family. Dede was grateful; every time she visited our house she brought gifts. Once it was a coffeetable book of "history's great beauties."

She climbed up on Mom's bed and they looked at it together. Helen of Troy, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O.

"You're one of them, Pat," Dede said.

"Oh, Dede, you are making my day," Mom said, beaming.

Before long Dede was the first person Mom would call in the morning, and the last she 'd talk to at the end of the day.

One time, when my parents were out, Dede appeared in my doorway.

"Come with me, Sean," she said. "I've got a surprise for you."

I wondered how she had gotten into our house. But it didn't matter. She was Mom's best friend. I went downstairs, got in her car, and we drove to the supermarket. She took me to the candy aisle.

"Let's pretend it's Halloween," Dede said. "And we can have as much candy as we want."

I was tentative. Yeah? Was this possible?

Dede started grabbing bags off the shelves, opening them, and handing me Reese 's Peanut Butter Cups and mini Hershey bars. She was like a kid with the power of an adult. She told me I could eat them right there in the aisles, demonstrated, and nobody stopped her. It was as though she owned the store. Maybe she did own the store! I started eating. We filled a cart with candy. I was flying on sugar. In the checkout line I chewed a Starburst and drank a Coke. Dede drank a Pepsi Lite and ate hunks of something called almond roca.

IN SAN FRANCISCO Dede and John Traina lived in Pacific Heights, a neighborhood of mansions not far from Russian Hill but stodgy by comparison. During the week she came over to our house by herself. Dede became a member of the family, part my big sister, part Mom's little sister, part something else. Dede was kooky, like family, too.

One day, after lunch, she told Mom and Dad and me how full she was, and asked, "Do you want to see how I get into my really tight jeans? I have to lie down, like this." She lay down, unzipped—pink underwear stood out against the kelly green of her jeans—"and then wriggle in." She pulled the waist down to demonstrate, and then started yanking it back up as she swiveled her hips side to side on the carpet.

Very difficult, I thought.

WHEN I WAS nine I asked Dad about sex. He drove me to the Fairmont Hotel, on nearby Nob Hill, parked across the street in a loading zone, and told me to wait in the car.

Then he crossed the semicircular drive of the hotel, held the door for a woman, exchanged a pleasant word, smiled (lips closed to hide his stained teeth), and disappeared into the building. I looked around Nob Hill: gray Grace Cathedral (where I'd be going to school soon); red-brick Pacific Union Club (an institution Dad reviled—though later joined—because "somebody blackballed me for being married to a Jewish woman," which required a complicated explanation of blackballing and Judaism, forever twinning the two in my mind); shreds of blue bay between old brownstone skyscrapers; green geometric Huntington Park where Thuy, a Vietnamese "governess" (to use Mom's word) whom I'd asked to marry me the year before, stealing a ring from her so I could give it back as a wedding present, once snatched up a pigeon and held it to her breast while she told me her brother had been killed by the Viet Cong.

Dad came out of the Fairmont holding a Playboy. He carried it in plain sight. I could make it out from across the street. I watched in awe––a small, beautiful, inadequately clothed woman, arriving with Dad. He got in and handed it to me. "Here," he said. "We 'll look at some women's bodies."

The cover woman looked at me like she loved me. I loved her!

Dad opened the magazine to the table of contents.

"What should we look at first?" he asked.

"The lady on the cover," I said in a very quiet voice. It seemed faithless to look at anybody else.

Dad laughed, not unkindly, and said, "Well, there 's a lot more in here. Let's look at the centerfold."

My vocabulary was getting ever larger.

He unfolded and I stared. The centerfold was the most beautiful picture of the most beautiful woman in the world that month. After a couple of minutes he said, "The centerfold doesn't have to be your favorite. It could be anyone." He handed me the magazine. I leafed through. Breasts. Lace. A completely naked woman in a body stocking—a totally confusing garment. I stopped at a halfpage picture of a woman with straight dark hair reclining on a rubber-latticed pool chaise, a gold unicorn pendant on a thin gold chain around her neck, and dangling down between her breasts, which were tanned, dewy, and a bit smaller—more modest, I thought—than the other breasts in the magazine. The unicorn stopped me. It was an amulet of power. Like the magic ring in my favorite book, The Hobbit. She was beautiful and mysterious and wise and possibly part elvish.

Dad turned back to the centerfold. I had a confusing erection. The centerfold was beautiful. She was tall and blonde and proud, standing completely straight, completely naked, and facing the camera. I had only ever desired toys, and now I desired her. She was motivating me. I felt like doing her bidding. I wasn't sure what she was bidding me to do. Grab the magazine to my chest? Crinkle the pages as hard as I could. Eat them? Roll around in the backseat with them? Beat someone in wrestling? (I was one of the better wrestlers in my Catholic grade school.) Everything hurt. I had hot magma flowing through my head and arms. Dad started the car and we drove home, me holding the Playboy. In the building's garage he took it back and said, "I'll keep this, but whenever you need it come ask me. We can look at it some more, together. But you can't keep it."

After we'd both looked at the issue a few times, another month came, and the overhill ride to the Fairmont happened again. It became a father-son tradition. After a few months, Dad told me, "I'm going to keep these in a drawer from now on, and you can come take them any time you want. You don't have to ask me. But you have to put them back when you're done looking at them. I'll be checking on that."

MY PARENTS' third home was a restaurant halfway down Nob Hill, toward the seedy Tenderloin—run-down on the outside, clubby and leathery and lustrous on the inside. I was a nonspilling, silent-when-told-to-be child, so, also when I was nine, my parents convinced the management to make an exception to their unbendable no-children rule, and for nearly a year I almost lived there, too.

It was like traveling overseas to a ruleless country. All proscriptions were thrown out. I got to stay up late. I was an adult. The maitre d' told us what a great table he had for us, down the hall, past the cigar lady in her closet—who waved at me as if from a ship—past the bathrooms with their zebra-skin doors, in the dim, glowing hum of the main room, called the Captain's Cabin, which grew louder as we entered, as if we were newspaper thrown on a fire.

A waiter came, took Dad's drink order—"Tanqueray gin on the rocks"—and quickly came back. The air around Dad started to smell like fuel.

Mom ordered. Dad ordered. They ordered for me: an elevated silver platter of spare ribs with a candle underneath, accompanied by a butterfly-shaped dish, one wing full of hot yellow mustard, the other sweet red sauce. Dad looked deeply content. Mom smiled her radiant, irresistible-to-photographers smile.

People came to say hello.

Dad drank his flammable Tanqueray gin on the rocks, slowly, and leaned back into the banquette, above which maxims were set into wooden plaques with chiseled Gothic letters. Above him it said:

No chord of music has yet been found To even equal that sweet sound Which to my mind all else surpasses The clink of ice in crystal glasses

I knew about the clink of ice in crystal glasses: It was a sound that meant all was well, everything was in its place, no mistakes were being made, everybody loved each other. I looked at the maxim on the plaque above Mom and Dad and I knew we were doing everything perfectly, and as long as the crystal and ice kept clinking there was nothing to worry about.

MOM AND DAD got divorced that same year—after ten years without once fighting, and regular reassurances that they would never get divorced—and when they did it was vicious and corrosive and melodramatic and strange, like having all your clothes taken away, being forced to the end of a narrow hallway, and having a flaming car battery hurled at you.

I thought their marriage was perfect until one night in the middle of dinner. This was the second night in a row that Mom had placed her head in her hands and started crying at the table while Dad carried on making conversation as though nothing were out of the ordinary. I said, "Dad, what's the matter with Mom?" He hesitated, and she blurted out miserably, "Something terrible has happened." Dad looked unreadable. I realized that this was serious. Dad said, "We're going to tell you about it after dinner." I tried to prepare myself. I tried to think of the worst thing that could ever happen happening.

I said, "Has Dede died?"

Mom and Dad told me that Dad would be moving out. A few days later I went and spent the night with him in the Fairmont Hotel, and for the first time he told me the following, which he would repeat many times over the years: "If your mother had cared as much about being a wife as she did about being a star, we'd still be married."

From Oh The Glory Of It All by Sean Wilsey. Copyright 2005 Sean Wilsey. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press.

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