Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Glorious San Francisco!

Ding ding ding, I think I may have found a winner in my quest for the Ultimate San Francisco Book (though take this with a grain of salt, because I am halfway through Tales of the City right now and of course that is a very strong contender). It's Sean Wilsey's Oh the Glory of It All, his leave-no-stone-unturned memoir of growing up as the son of some of San Francisco's most famous figures in the 1970s and 1980s. When he was nine, his father, dairy-products millionaire Al Wilsey, divorced his mother, socialite Pat Montandon--then immediately married her best friend, Dede Traina. Sean, a rather shy and sensitive boy, grew up in the shadow of these three outsize personalities, turned delinquent as a teenager--but got himself straightened out, and matured into an impressive, engaging writer.

This is dishy stuff, so I felt mildly scandalous toting my paperback around town, reading it on a bench in Alta Plaza Park or while waiting for the curtain to rise at the opera house. See, Dede Wilsey lives across from Alta Plaza Park and is one of the San Francisco Opera's most generous patrons, so there was the subversive thrill of thinking I could possibly run into her, and she'd see what I was reading, and, I don't know, snatch the book out of my hands and tell me that it was all lies from cover to cover, or just stare daggers at me and then mutter "Plebeians" under her breath.

Because Oh the Glory of It All leaves you in no doubt that Dede Wilsey would do that kind of thing. "How can I explain Dede? She's my evil stepmother," writes Sean. In a book full of manipulative and self-absorbed people, Dede beats them all. You know how in an old-fashioned melodrama, the villain comes onstage and kicks a dog in order to prove that he is a Bad Man? Well, Wilsey implies that Dede poisoned her pet dog in order to divert attention from her ex-husband's wedding to Danielle Steel! And that's just the beginning.

The book is filled with these kind of audacious stories--and Wilsey describes them in such unsparing detail that they are funny as well as shocking. He doesn't hesitate to show himself in an unflattering light and milk that for humor, either; I nearly went into hysterics on the bus when I got to the part where Wilsey reveals that his favorite song when he was 12 years old was a schlocky pseudo-Broadway advertising jingle.

Like Dave Eggers, Wilsey is a McSweeney's-an, and they both write in a similar style (hip, loquacious memoirs) but the appeal of Oh the Glory of It All is fundamentally different than that of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Before his parents' sudden deaths, Eggers did not lead a particularly remarkable life; thus the reader easily thinks Hey, that could be me! Indeed, Eggers openly adopts an Everyman persona, wishing to be the conduit for the hopes and fears and struggles of his generation. Wilsey, however, was born into incredible circumstances, wishing he could live the simple Everyman life, but finding that hard to achieve. He frames the book as a story of how he carved out his own identity and made peace with the past, rather than a story of his generation's angst. The gossipy, Schadenfreude aspects of his memoir also appeal to we who wonder what it would be like to live among millionaires or attend a ritzy boarding school (oh come on, don't we all?). I also found Wilsey less guilt-ridden and self-conscious than Eggers, more attuned to the quirks of the people around him and not only to his own emotions.

One of the highlights of the book is a trip 12-year-old Sean takes to the USSR with "Children as Teachers of Peace," his mother's charity, and later he attends far-flung boarding schools in New England and Italy, but that doesn't stop this from being a left-my-heart-in-San-Francisco story. Wilsey is in love with the topography of this town, fascinated by historical events such as the 1906 quake, and takes the reader into little-known corners of the city, both high and low. He's equally adept writing about the opening of the opera as he is describing how it feels to skateboard down Market Street. If Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City is about San Francisco as a haven for people who never fit in in other parts of America ("Nobody is from San Francisco," Maupin writes), Oh the Glory of It All refutes that--San Francisco does have native citizens and a culture distinct from the waves of hippies and beatniks and gay people and computer nerds that have settled here. And Wilsey is the perfect introduction to it. If any of my friends ever move out here, I know what I'll be buying them a copy of...

Photo of Sean Wilsey by Ting-li Wang, The New York Times.

1 comment:

Mead said...

And of course you realize some of the people in Wilsey's childhood appear in thinly disguised form in Tales of the City, bringing your spelunking expedition full circle!