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Book Review November 18, 2005
You Blew It, Sean!
By John Dolan Browse author Email

"Lying Together:My Russian Affair"-by Jennifer Beth Cohen

This book almost succeeds. Sean Wilsey has a great story and the ruthlessness to tell it. He's the son of Pat Montandon and Al Wilsey, San Francisco socialites who were (as I remember very well) fixtures in Herb Caen's column. He bounced from Mom to Dad after their divorce, and ended up in the clutches of Dede the evil stepmom, another Caen favorite.

Wilsey has the tools he needs to do a proper slice'n'dice on his folks: he clearly saved up every damning story about the three egomaniacs who took turns messing him up, and has decided to show no mercy on any of them.

Unfortunately, the rich-snitch boy decided he couldn't just do the fun, natural thing and make this into a comic slap at the folks. Wilsey betrays the merciless comedy of his best chapters by pandering to the poor-little-rich-boy style of worthless memoirists like James Frey and Dave Eggers, waxing pious about his "pain," until you want to beat him to death with his skateboard.

And every time Wilsey starts talking about "the pain," you can watch in horror as his prose style falls to pieces. Here's a typical passage, where he starts out with a fast, entertaining list of the publicity his parents' divorce got, and then tosses in that clunker- "the pain"- at the end:

"The divorce made it all the way to the National Enquirer. They ran a full-page photo of Mom under the headline THE WORLD'S MOST EXPENSIVE WIFE (Dad's phrase). It was Dallas and Dynasty and Danielle Steel come to life. It was like being trapped in a television drama. Having to live and make sense of the world through its rules, scenarios, plotlines, cliff-hangers.

"This was an eighties prime-time soap opera drama. Except for the pain."

Pain, schmain! It was a soap opera, period. That's why it's interesting, not because of "the pain." If only you'd had the guts to write this story without "the pain," you could have written a remarkable book.

But that would have taken a stronger, more original mind than Wilsey's. And he's not entirely to blame; in his world, collecting and polishing one's sob stories is a very important activity. I remember cafe afternoons at Berkeley, where one sob story would set off a round of one-up-manship. We all took it seriously at the time, but it seems like a comic tableau now: a half-dozen sleek ambition-machines, racing yachts in human form, dredging up anecdotes about their tough kidhoods as the rest pretended to listen, rehearsing their own best hard-luck tales.

This was no casual pastime. It was as serious as the play-fighting of hyena cubs. Sob stories were valid currency at Berkeley. They added extra-credit points to your accomplishments, made you socially and sexually desirable. They could and did get people into Harvard Law. (And before you racists jump to any conclusions, let me add that I'm thinking of two cases here, and both were white. Those sob stories were good for admission under "special circumstances," not affirmative action.)

It was always a risky game, these trust-funders' competition to be the saddest rich kid in the room, and some of Wilsey's stories backfire very badly. I have a hard time feeling sorry for little Sean as Mommy takes him on a round-the-world trip to forget her divorce. And far too often, he resorts to long descriptions of the stingy room Dede and Dad allot him to prove what a victim he is. It's so absurdly padded that I have to edit it heavily to show you what passes for privation in Wilsey's world:

"My gray room was perfectly square:[with] a dresser from a cheap set:on the adjacent south wall was a matching dresser. To allow for the opening of drawers in both dressers, they just touched at the edges:[I'm cutting a 200-word, heartbreaking account of Dad's stinginess about the power bill]:Next to this dresser, which also held my Montgomery Ward stereo, was a sliding glass door to a roof deck:"

If that doesn't break your heart, you just don't have one. Dear God, they made this Cinderfella listen to a Montgomery Ward stereo! If it wasn't for the mention of the "roof deck," you'd almost forget that Sean lives in a mansion.

It's too bad Wilsey succumbs to the sob-story fad, because he tells a good story and even seems like a decent guy. He's got rotten taste-likes the Cure, and Alan Alda is his favorite actor-but all in all, he comes across as an honest, amusing, good-natured specimen of an endemic Bay Area species: the San Francisco rich-kid fuckup whose upbringing among monstrous egomaniacal parents and stepparents has made him determinedly ordinary.

If only he'd stressed the vengeful ordinariness of his life right through, this might have been a really daring, original work. That's why the most impressive confession in this book is Wilsey's revelation that he once snuck into the principal's office at his private school, read his own file, and discovered that his IQ is 106. That's courage, admitting something as shameful as that. An IQ of 70, that'd be impressive, as would one around 150. But 106-Ooooo, that had to hurt.

Dede Wilsey

It rings true, though. I remember teaching guys from families like Wilseys; they often took revenge on their gigantic parents by staying as flat, small and dull as they could. That drove their folks, who were as huge and full of hot air as a Thanksgiving float, absolutely crazy. Only trouble is, it doesn't make the protagonist very interesting. Wilsey seems to understand that, in his better moments. His book is interesting because it spills everything about mom, dad and stepmom. They're very entertaining, these three. Especially mom: Pat Montandon, a hick blonde from Oklahoma who married Al Wilsey, zillionaire produce wholesaler, jumped into her role as SF's hostess with the mostes' (the mostes' raw, naked ego, that is), crashed hard when Wilsey dumped her for Dede-the-evil-stepmom, and reinvented herself as "peace advocate" in a pitiful attempt to hog the spotlight as a middle-aged dumpee.

Dede's great too. You don't get too many evil stepmoms in literature these days. I don't know why not. They're still around, God knows, and they've always been good copy. Wilsey takes a good, long revenge on Dede, and in the process writes beyond his ability. Ah, hate, the best muse of all.

See, Dede doesn't love her stepson Sean. And she's got Dad under her manicured little thumb. Most of this book is devoted to a string of anecdotes, which Sean obviously rehearsed over the years at many a competitive sob-story session like the ones I recall at Berkeley. They're a mixed bag; when he's detailing Dede's finely-honed bitchiness he's very entertaining and convincing, but as soon as he returns to the pain, O the pain, his writing sinks almost to Frey level, which is to say several strata below the trilobites. Here's a sample:

"I had discovered something.

The useless emotion in my life was love. My love for Dad.

It was useless to care without reciprocation.

But we were father and son. So we were stuck together. My nonhazel eyes aside, we were identical in appearance. Much to Dede's annoyance, I looked like his shadow, trailing fifty years behind.

Anyway: The useless emotion was love.

There was no use for my love."

Oh, what utter crap! And note the way Wilsey's prose, normally pretty solid, sensible stuff, slips into the Frey repertoire as he descends to bathos: suddenly he's writing those hushed, one-line paragraphs, schmaltzy repetitions of "love," wallowing in the role of the unrequited son.

Every time I come across this kind of Dad-bathos I have the same reaction: it's a lie. It's a Spielberg cliche, the son who pines for Daddy's love. Look, I know these guys, and they had other priorities. In fact, I can't think of a single male adolescent I ever knew who wanted his Dad hanging around. Most of them wanted Dad to fuck off, and a big minority eagerly prayed for Dad's demise.

A male adolescent's priorities are simple: sex, social standing among the cool assholes at school, the chance to display athletic, musical or martial skill, and the opportunity to boast without being found out.

As Wilsey tells it, he had all this: he has friends at school, and the kids laugh when he flirts with the French teacher-which means he had status, because high school kids only laugh at their superiors' jokes. Girls like him, though he doesn't seem to care much-another weird feature of these rich-kid memoirs. (Maybe they just take their appeal for granted, a thought so bitter that I'll have to suppress it if I want to finish this review without slipping into abuse.)

These damn cheap Oprah lies bring down the book. They're contagious; having lied about his need for Daddy's love, Wilsey starts lying about everything else involving the filial bond, starting with what kids are like: "kids are trusting and wise:" As the late Mr. Strummer said, cut the crap. Kids are sadistic swine.

The shift from funny, vengeful snitching to sobby schmaltz accelerates in the final chapters. Wilsey betrays his own best work, his hilarious depiction of his idiot Mom's desperate drive for attention, just so he can turn her and Dad into sob-objects.

It's crazy, because we KNOW, after hearing about her in such detail, that Mom is an utter fool. And no saint either; he's given us plenty of great stories revealing her ignorant grandstanding, utter selfishness, and hick pomposity.

Wilsey may have thought that this book would be revenge on Dede the evil stepmom, but Dede gets off lightly; she comes across as a bitch, but a sane, relatively dignified bitch. It's Sean's Mom who really gets trashed. Clearly Sean was determined from an early age to remember every stupid thing Mom ever said, and as Mom's second career as Peace Advocate gears up, her innate hamminess makes for some really fine comedy, as here, with Mom telling Sean her visions of a past life as an Indian maiden:

"I saw the deerskin straps that held my teepee together. The furs on the floor. Things I didn't even know about, " she told me. "It was a past life experience, Sean."

"Wow, Mom," I said."

The epiphanies keep coming, when someone points out that Mom's peace campaign, "Children as Teachers of Peace," makes the acronym C.A.T.P.-"See A Tee Pee."

"Sean-it's a miracle. Your mom's a visionary," Mom said.

What about the 'of'? I thought. Shouldn't it be C.A.T.O.P.?"

Now that's good stuff. And that's why it was so disappointing to see Wilsey turn Mom from a grotesque comic character into somebody Oprah could love-just another salt lick for the Oprah crowd who can't enjoy a book unless they get the chance to squirt a few. As he cranks up the violins in the last third of the book, Sean tells us about Mom's account of her early years in the Sticks, and says piously, "Everything about Mom's childhood in Texas and Oklahoma was clear and moving and full of life." Oh, come on! "Clear and moving and full of life"? Mom was a golddigging buffoon from birth, and you know it, Sean. Stop lying, damn it! What is it with these Americans and their sobby lies?

Actually, there's a simple answer to that question: Wilsey comes by his tearjerking via his apprenticeship to Dave Eggers. Wilsey worked at Eggers' magazine, McStaggers, while writing this book and clearly absorbed the technique Eggers used to such advantage in his hit debut, A Charttopping Case of Sobsqueezing Patricide. Eggers taught Wilsey that any good memoir has to have at least one parent-death in it, and that death has to be stretched as long as possible to let the suckers work their tear ducts. So Dad dies and Wilsey cranks up the melodrama.

By the end of the book, we're stuck in Eggers-land, with Sean returning to San Francisco to have such touching filial thoughts as "This is where Dad took his last flight." The man's married by now, but like all these American babies he's still obsessed with Daddy. It's sick. Nah, not even sick-it's just plain fake, a lie.

For writers like Eggers, "glory" is just another funny word like "heartbreaking" and "staggering" and "genius." Too bad Wilsey fell under the influence of an impresario as cynical as that, because Wilsey was in possession of a really big story, and for him, "glory" was a real possibility. If he'd written his actual experience rather than stooping to bathos, this might have been a remarkable book, the inside account of a family with no insides-the private life of hams.

Somehow this book's failure makes me think of Married with Children, which does so magnificently what Wilsey fails to do: sustain a family comedy about four self-centered hams without ever falling into bathos. I've always considered MWC an underrated, brilliant work, but after seeing Wilsey fall, I'm more convinced than ever that it's a unique accomplishment in American art. If only Wilsey had watched every episode as he wrote this, instead of learning all the wrong lessons from that damned middlebrow Eggers.

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