Oh the Glory of It All, by Sean Wilsey. The Penguin Press, 482 pages, $25.95.
Sean Wilsey had a lousy childhood, which is a shame. Then, when his father died, his stepmother inherited a considerable fortune, part of which might otherwise have gone to Sean, who got nothing, which is also a shame. Before you reach for your hanky, though, consider that in addition to arranging for a lousy childhood, his fabulous, monstrous parents handed him material for a slam-bang memoir, which in this day and age is all the leg-up a bright kid really needs. But now, with Oh the Glory of It All, a long, sloppy, aimless mess that buries its own bright beginnings, Sean Wilsey has squandered his only birthright, which is the biggest shame of all-because unless you’re a Hollywood legend or a former President, you only get to write your memoirs once.
Mr. Wilsey peddled his story on the basis of 100 pages; a couple of paragraphs would have done the trick. His mother, Pat Montandon, was a true beauty, three times married, loopy and magnetic, who made herself into a top-tier San Francisco hostess: “Meeting Mom is like meeting a celebrity you’ve never heard of.” In San Francisco in the 60’s and 70’s, she was a celebrity-doing local TV gigs, writing a society column in the Examiner, throwing sumptuous parties. Sean’s father, Al Wilsey, also three times married, with four grown children, was a butter and real-estate magnate, an odd, changeable man with a murky past and a weakness for jet helicopters.
Al and Pat lived richly together, in a legendary penthouse on Russian Hill (“eight hundred feet in the air above San Francisco”), until Sean, Pat’s only child, was 9. Then Al left Pat for Pat’s much younger best friend, Dede, and Sean’s parents fought a bitter and costly court battle over money. The divorce became a tabloid sensation; in 1980, the National Enquirer chose this headline to accompany a full-page photo of Pat: “THE WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE WIFE.”
Wait-there’s more, much more. After her husband’s rank betrayal (Al also had an affair with Danielle Steel-too perfect), Sean’s mother waxed suicidal. “I’m eleven, almost twelve. Mom comes out of her bedroom in a long white nightgown and sits at the top of the steps overlooking the city. She looks miserable, defeated …. She asks me to sit down with her …. We stare out at the view. ‘Sean,’ she says, ‘I’m going to kill myself tonight and I want you to kill yourself with me.'”
But before she could kill herself, taking her son with her, Pat got religion-more precisely, she had a “vision” and found a cause: world peace. In the last decade of the Cold War, she paraded around the globe with a multi-ethnic coalition of kids (Sean included), laying siege to the White House and the Kremlin, visiting the Pope, Indira Gandhi, Anwar Sadat’s widow, carrying the message that children are “Teachers of Peace.”
Al Wilsey, meanwhile, married Dede, who coolly co-opted Pat’s position in San Francisco society, took over Pat’s Napa Valley weekend dream house, and turned suddenly against Sean, hardening his father’s heart against him.
Googling Dede Wilsey is an entertaining experience. Now a widow and a powerful civic presence in San Francisco, she’s a very public supporter of the arts-with a vulgar streak brightly visible clear across the continent. (Last summer, a grateful San Francisco Ballet announced the existence of the Dede Wilsey Tutu Fund.) Born Diane Dow Buchanan in 1943, her great-grandfather was the founder of Dow Chemical and her father was Wiley T. Buchanan Jr., a Nixon crony who served as ambassador to Luxembourg and Austria. Dede had two sons from an earlier marriage, and these slick, well-adjusted stepbrothers usurped Sean’s place, of course, in his father’s outrageously opulent household. (It’s easy to see why Mr. Wilsey found it impossible to resist the numbing overkill of pasting into his narrative seven pages worth of quotes from newspapers and magazines itemizing the glitz of Dede and Al Wilsey’s ceaseless social round.)
With this cast of characters, how can the memoir go wrong? Slowly at first, then all at once. I read pages 1 through 50 in a state of delighted fascination, feeling immensely lucky to be offered an intimate glimpse of these extraordinarily privileged people, all clearly toxic at close range. The opening description of the nuclear family-“We were Mom and Dad and I-three palindromes!”-is deft and lighthearted despite the looming disaster. But after the break-up, with the arrival center-stage of an arch-villain, the tone darkens. This sentence marks the abrupt end of the good times: “Dede, at all times, remains pleasant and charming, even as she pierces you with a javelin slicked in shit.” The reader flinches, the author shrugs: “But how can I explain Dede? She’s my evil stepmother. She’s an unbelievable cliché.”
Worse, the cliché is married to an enigma: “Whatever I can tell you about my father,” Sean writes, “will probably be wrong. I have a collection of theories and incidents and facts concerning Dad, but no comprehension.”
Maybe because he can’t explain either his fickle father or his father’s new bride, and because his mother’s melodrama (“Mom, patron saint of Peace and Glamour”) is faintly ridiculous (she’s confident that she’ll win a Nobel Peace Prize) and borderline pathetic (as the poisonous Dede remarks, “There’s just nothing more awful than a woman who lets herself go”), Sean turns to a new topic: himself. For 200 miserable pages, in dogged chronological order, he recites the crimes and misdemeanors of his increasingly delinquent adolescence. Mom and Dad and Dede recede. Instead of high-society meltdown and simmering feud, instead of goofy, globe-straddling idealism, instead of epic bouts of conspicuous consumption, we get a sniveling skateboarder with crab lice who masturbates to the image of his loathsome stepmother and flunks out of one dingy East Coast boarding school after another. Classic bait-and-switch.
I’ll spare you the details in favor of the diagnosis (actually, Mr. Wilsey tries out many diagnoses, some more convincing than others, but this one conveniently doubles as an example of his prose at its sloppiest): “As the enemy of emotions I refused to capitulate to them, but was, of course, not strong enough to refuse them, so I felt the one acceptable stifled emotions byproduct: anger. (Also rage, hate.)” And presto: one horrid teenager.
If the cause of the condition is bottled-up emotion, pulling the cork out is the cure. At age 18, at a tiny experimental school in Tuscany called Amity-the teachers are “counselors,” the curriculum group therapy-Sean began his recovery. “I have never experienced emotions so powerfully, mysteriously, unwillingly, and eventually, gratefully. Skepticism and sarcasm, the former forward scouts of my identity, went into deep remission. They were laid low. They were almost killed! My personality was completely wiped out. Amity gave me a new one.” To sum up, minus the mixed metaphor: “What happened was simple: People took a benevolent interest in me.”
Writing a memoir is the logical next step. Less than 30 pages after he graduates from Amity, “I sold the proposal for this book …. ” So now he writes about the writing of the book-not in a tricky postmodern way, but blandly, boringly, as the enormity of the problem yawns wide: There’s nothing more to say, except that he met a girl and got married and … and it all begins to sound like a letter you might get at Christmas from an aunt in the Midwest who wants to broadcast a year’s sanitized news to all her friends and family.
Al Wilsey dies, age 83, and the lavish funeral that Dede orchestrates gives the narrative some shape and the last pages a dust-to-dust finality. But it’s too late for meaning, unless you count this pair of desperately earnest, unavailing assertions: “A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are.” And: “This book has been about identity. Identity is the theme. Knowing who you are.”
Oh for the days when “I” was just the briefest palindrome.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.