Alibi V.14 No.32 • Aug 11-17, 2005 

Book Review

Welcome to My Unhappy Childhood

Oh the Glory of It All

Penguin
hardcover
$25.95

Being rich has never been insurance against being unhappy. This doesn't mean the rich are greedy, just that when the heart truly aches, it doesn't matter whether you drown your sorrows in single malt scotch or rot gut wine. It still hurts. Jay Gatsby had all the money in the world, but he didn't have Daisy.

And so it goes for Sean Wilsey. Son of the late San Francisco philanthropist Al Wilsey and former gossip columnist Pat Montandon, Wilsey grew up in an immense penthouse apartment overlooking the bay. Money was never an issue. But love and attention were not quite so abundant. When his parents divorced, Wilsey spiraled into a vortex of neediness.

Oh the Glory of It All tells the heartbreaking and hilarious story of Wilsey's attempts to get his larger-than-life parents to give him just a little bit of their time. Read the book's first few pages, and you'll understand why this was such a tall order. Even Harold Robbins would have struggled to invent a couple as flamboyant as Wilsey's parents.

As king and queen of San Francisco's social scene, they hobnobbed with premiers of foreign countries and invited Nobel laureates to lunch. Their annual party invitations were more coveted than sideline tickets to the Superbowl. When Wilsey's father wanted to go somewhere, he flew his helicopter and landed wherever he pleased.

As a result, when the Wilseys split up, it was a citywide event, the social subway series of San Francisco in the '80s. Wilsey's mother asked for "spousal support" of $23,000 per month, which included $2,500 a month on clothing. Such details, of course, wound up in the National Enquirer.

The breakup may have made for good copy, but it made 9-year-old Sean so eager-to-please he tried on a different identity each month. He became funny Sean, mean Sean, stoner Sean (who sells pot to his high school science teacher) and then, when all of these failed, he became screw-up Sean, got booted from five prep schools and learned to skateboard with a vengeance.

Like Dave Eggers' memoir, which it resembles without being derivative, Oh the Glory of It All is a triumph of tone over tribulation. Other men have perhaps suffered more, but what this book does—and does brilliantly—is give us the illusion of being inside Wilsey's head as he experiences this family turmoil. His prose is headlong and rich, without betraying the age he is supposed to be at the time. Here is Wilsey describing Dede, the woman his father marries soon after the divorce:

"Dede kept talking. She had a machinelike way of going on about a topic, as though she were speaking to imbeciles. She was like a perpetual speech machine. She could generate words in any situation, on any topic, with seemingly no connection to what she was thinking, as though her mouth was moving while her brain was otherwise engaged, as though words were what powered and lubricated her malevolence."

If Wilsey's father is the heart and soul of this book, than Dede is most certainly its villain. As Wilsey's father showers her with expensive jewels and a new Mercedes, she systemically cuts his son out of their life. No longer is Sean allowed to call her mom. "You have a mother. Unfortunately for all us," Dede says. "And I'm not her." Later on, when Sean is an adult, she turns to him at meals and says things like, "You weren't a planned child, you know. You were a mistake. Your father didn't want you. He's ashamed of you."

This, as we come to know, is the lowest blow of all. While Wilsey achieves a separate peace with his mother, his father remains an elusive figure, so much that when he returns from his final shot at high school—an alternative institution in Italy—his father's ordering of a cappuccino means the world to him.

"He ordered it because of me," Wilsey recalls thinking at the time, "because I've been in Italy. Drinking this decaf cappuccino is like putting my picture on the walls inside his body."

Oh the Glory of It All reads like the tableau Sean Wilsey had frescoed on the inside of his own body after living through this wrenching family drama. It is beautiful and funny, and now that it's on paper, it's definitely glorious, too.