The writer who dares to take on his own past has to be really fucking careful. Memory can get you into a lot of trouble because it involves these things called Other People. Just ask Lillian Hellman. (I could go on.) This odd hubris, this attempt to harvest a narrative as it were, out of the murky and mutually-owned past, can drive people who were part of that past crazy.
“Oh The Glory of It All,” Sean Wilsey’s memoir of life with his difficult family, is sheer ambrosia. And I am not referring to a desert made of oranges and flaked coconut. I’m thinking food of the gods. Immortal life. That sort of thing. He writes about a childhood gone south with the soiled innocence of a Lost Boy and with the charming cunning and the flair for concealment of Peter Pan, had Mr. Pan been schooled in perfect manners and deportment. He takes an enormous amount of chaos, bad-faith, bad behavior, good intentions gone awry, innocence betrayed, and turns it into art, as easily as a magic trick. But the sweet, wild-child tone subtly and delicately changes temperature as Wilsey grows up. He remembers everything. (And what a wise, kind man he becomes, at least on the page. We’ve never met.) But one feels him awakening to the world, to himself, little by little, in spite of the damage done to him.
By the end, I was as proud of him as I would be of my oldest, dearest friend, had he pulled off what Wilsey does. I guess I would like to say that I saw myself in him. In art vs. life, life may win, but art can go fifteen rounds and inflict a whole lotta damage. It can also reclaim a great deal of lost territory. I am not surprised that Wilsey’s step-mom has contemplated suing him. (With bloodless precision she does to the Wilseys sort of what Iago does to the Othellos.) But the triumph of “Oh the Glory of It All” is not that it is merely a virtuoso act of vengeance. The triumph is greater, means more. Wilsey cares about his family. Not just about his unstable and vivid theatrical mother, but also, his disconnected, Reagan-esque father, who like all old men who were powerful, and whose powers wane and wax...comes at the end to seem like a gentle dying King Lear. (Some of the best writing recounts a lunch the two of them have in San Francisco. Almost nothing happens except for the quiet pleasure of intimacy between the two men as the afternoon goes on.)
So. What makes a “reliable narrator”? Is he one? Is there such a thing?
Wilsey is a gorgeous stylist, and possesses a hilariously unrelenting capacity for self-criticism. But why is he so credible? He’s credible because of how much he loves, rather than for how much he knows. When you write about your family and your place, and your time, you end up hurting people. I think it’s because you take control. Your version interrupts the classic home movie people have running in a loop in their heads.
I know I am not a reliable narrator.
To wit: Last week, I received a letter from a highly agitated near-stranger, someone I had known briefly almost thirty years before when we were weedy schoolboys in Durban, South Africa. It was a bitter and detailed denunciation of an essay I had written about that period in my life for the Sunday Times Magazine a month ago. The mad as hell letter was addressed to the editor. His thesis was basically that I had criminally exaggerated the details of my life in Durban, gotten it all wrong – not just facts, but mood, nuance, internal calculation, private teenage fears and all. Everything: wrong, wrong, wrong. He quite helpfully attributed my Jude the Obscure-esque sadness in apartheid era Durban to my lack of coordination and -- perhaps, by implication? -- my being a fag; I wasn’t sporty enough. (True and correct on both points.) He also expressed gratitude for the fact that the nasty bullies turned from him to me when I got there; sparing him further “finger-bending." (?) (I actually pretty much disarmed the bullies with comedy.)
Unfortunately I was writing “about” another school, the Clifton Preparatory School for Boys, which I had gone to way before the enraged letter writer and I met. Didn’t matter. I had set down for the public record -- in “the paper of record” -- my version. That’s what made him nuts. The thing he found so upsetting, as far as I could tell, is I had made (sort of) a career out of the whole thing of writing about what I knew about that time and place. And he -- apparently slavish to the literal, and now living here in Manhattan, working in the money business -- was frustrated that I had turned his nostalgic nirvana into magazine trash. His letter to the editor was filled with loving memories of his early life in Durban, and how apartheid hadn't really affected anyone we knew in any way. (True on the surface but not in the way he thinks.)
I tore the letter up into A Million Little Pieces and moved on. My mother wasn’t too happy with my essay either. She felt it somehow implicated her. Subtly, implicitly. She wasn't sure in what, but the notion that I had been unhappy as a ten year old reflected poorly on her. As though my happiness depended on her. (Did it? Did it?) We talked, she laughed it off; a writers’ mom, by now a pro, taking the blows, getting hit again and again and again. Ouch. And -- my brother didn’t even call me when he read it. I was an orphan writer boy! The thought of hurting people I love makes me cringe. And yet…it keeps happening: My late dad, who had been an executive at Carnation Milk for thirty years, used to watch my play “Three Hotels," about an executive at a milk company marketing baby formula in the third world, with a mix of fascinated pride and bemused consternation. My mother fell down some steps and nearly couldn’t make it to the opening of my play “A Fair Country” at Lincoln Center, which was about the fucked up lives of an American family in Durban in the 1970s and ‘80s. She had fallen down some stairs in Seattle a year prior, on her way to see a workshop production of the same play. She never made it to the show.
My play “Mizlansky-Zilinsky, or “Schmucks," which was about a manic, giddy, subversive, criminal, tax-shelter-promoting film producer on the skids I had worked for in the 1980s in Hollywood, as his gofer, promoted hoots of laughter when seen by the man who inspired it. He snuck in one night, before fleeing the states, on the run from IRS men. I was nervous. He was capable of verbal and physical violence. Things had been thrown, and words had been said. He had a sociopath’s instinct for adversaries’ weak spots, and I had become one.
“Kid," he told me, after the show, his bullet head as shiny as Toad of Toad Hall’s, “you got it all wrong; I’m much worse than that.” He shook his head in disgust.
And indeed he was. Much worse than that. But I sort of loved him anyway. Maybe one day I'll get it right. In the meantime, Sean Wilsey has.