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Oh the Glory of it All by Sean Wilsey

A Memoir You May Outgrow

When feeling lofty, book jacket copywriters like to use the word bildingsroman to apply to a well-crafted book which is over 400 pages and paints a portrait (usually autobiographical) of the male arc of boy to man. We all know Thomas Mann deserved the word. Thomas Wolfe deserved it. The question is, does Sean Wilsey deserve it?

Sean Wilsey's book walks in the 30-something memoir footsteps of Dave Eggers, his compatriot at McSweeney's. Unlike the parents in Eggers' book, Wilsey's parents don't die, but for the most part, you wish they did. Oh the Glory is the tale of the privileged son of a butter distributor, Alfred Wilsey, in upper crust San Francisco during the 1980s and 1990s. The Wilseys are very wealthy. The class difference is no more apparent than when Wilsey's father satisfies his son's questions about sex by driving to the Fairmont Hotel each month to pick up a copy of Playboy to share. This is a man who has, evidently, not heard of 7-11.

Affection and attention in young Wilsey's life, already parceled out in microscopic bits, becomes even scarcer when Wilsey's father dumps Wisley's mother for his mother's best friend, Dede Traina. The two had been carrying on an affair, straight out of a Jack Lemmon movie, in a "nooner" apartment on San Francisco's north side.

Wisley's life shifts into a week with Mom, week with Dad and Dede scenario. Wilsey finds himself both lusting for Dede and despising her, a real-life foil to "Dynasty"'s manipulative Joan Collins character. He can't find refuge with his mother either, a thrice-married former model who oscillates between global do-gooder journeys and threatening her own death knells. When the torque of his relationships with nearly everyone becomes too strong, Wilsey is shipped out to a battery of prep schools, Holden Caulfield-style.

The book's second part is devoted to the disciplinary practices and social landscapes of these schools: St, Marks, Woodhall, and Cascade. When Wilsey flees Cascade, the family finally does something right by sending him to a school in Italy that not only teaches him how to work in a group, but how to shed the personas he's been using to rebut his family: the pot head, the skate rat, the invisible man.

Wilsey will endure the criticism that he is only joining a genre set by Eggers years ago. The argument is sound in some respects when Wilsey's style runs toward the italicized or heavy on the exclamation marks that have become Eggers' trademarks. Oh the Glory also reprints comic strips and jumble puzzles from the early '80s, which is something you might have seen in Eggers' magazine Might ten years ago. These are indulgences more than copycat maneuvers. They do make the book more fun.

So, bildingsroman it probably is. But the Germans have another term for books, hausbuch, which is the kind of book you'll find on shelves where there may not be many books at all. Wilsey's book, while well written, is probably not a book you will keep on your shelves, simply because you will outgrow the book if and when you become a parent.

Oh the Glory of it All by Sean Wilsey
May 19, 2005
Penguin Press
Hardcover/$25.95
ISBN: 1-59420-051-3
482 pages