An actor’s memoir of growing up with a dangerous father channels Augusten Burroughs, Sean Wilsey, et. al.—maybe a bit too closely.
I read a lot of memoirs. And when I do I avoid reading flap copy, for fear that the crisp promo-speak will taint my reading, or distort my expectations. I broke that rule for Gonville, writer/actor Peter Birkenhead’s memoir of his childhood in the shadow of an abusive, gun-obsessed father who harbored an unhealthy man-crush on 19th Century British Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. Two chapters into Birkenhead’s memoir—after a post-Chappaquiddick Ted Kennedy cameo is followed by a cold, abrupt scene of young Birkenhead munching idly on an apple as his father beats his brother limp for touching one of his many, many guns—I closed the book and thought, “Why does this book feel so familiar?”
Then I read the flap copy, which noted that the Gonville combines “the terror and wit of Running with Scissors, the poignancy and sense of place of The Tender Bar, with the sparkling prose of Oh the Glory of It All.” And it hit me: The chapter I’d just read should have translated to bizarre, hilarious, and severe storytelling. A towering father with an equal capacity for charisma, vulnerability, and rage? Yes. A wry sense of humor in the face of danger? Yep. Yet somehow those elements are neutered by the flap copy—not because the books by Augusten Burroughs, J. R. Moehringer, and Sean Wilsey are Gonville’s driving inspiration, but because the book seems built from their scraps.
Which isn’t to say that Gonville is a “bad” memoir—it’s not. The narrative tells three stories that technically hit every note they need to: Birkenhead’s journey from young, summer-stock stagehand to struggling New York actor; his mother’s jagged ascension from oppressed, battered housewife to accomplished Broadway musician; and most prominently, his father’s degeneration from well respected history professor to lonely, erratic victim of his own paranoia and malice. Aside from a few lazy gusts of hyperbole (“Grandma smiled like she could melt Siberia”), Birkenhead’s prose largely carries a charming voice and a swift momentum, and he doesn’t shy away from human drama.
But tonally, Gonville is a shapeshifter, absorbing the characteristics and mannerisms of other recent memoirs that have covered similar territory more naturally. The chapter with Ted Kennedy and the brutal beating re-creates the same odd marriage of pathos and pop-culture absurdity that Wilsey made sing so well in Oh the Glory of It All; yet Birkenhead’s telling lacks Wilsey’s fearless ability to explore his own cursed role in that absurdity. The depictions of Birkenhead’s father that lead off the book—clad in bikini briefs in a room stocked with weaponry, reenacting scenes from the 1964 film Zulu, starring Michael Caine as Lt. Gonville—don’t recall Burroughs’ surreal passages about his mother in Running with Scissors as much as they attempt to re-inhabit them. Brikenhead’s interludes of teen mischief, girlfriends, and New York Mets fandom channel the cinematic, wistful tone Moehringer leaned on in The Tender Bar, and so on.
Given that Birkenhead was, until a few years ago, an actor—someone who professionally inhabits other characters, lives other narratives—this tonal mash-up almost makes sense. But it makes for a disjointed and sometimes hollow reading experience, and readers are left waiting for the real Peter Birkenhead to truly emerge.
Which, on rare occasions, he does happen. There are sublime, pleasurable moments in Gonville that that belong only to Birkenhead, that can’t be funneled through anyone else’s lens. His sweet-and-sour relationship to a young, boozy Elaine Stritch , for instance, lives in the gray areas between guilt, shame, and friendship. And Birkenhead’s most consistent father/son scenes feature him reluctantly gripping his father’s ankles as the man plows through mortifying bouts of naked sit-ups, flashes of bizarre levity that still carry an unchecked charge of predatory danger.
But ultimately the book’s major plot twists fall victim to the predictable beats of the modern memoir factory: Here is the moment of stolen innocence. Here is where the protagonist sees someone differently than he once had. Here, the book’s major, shocking secret will be revealed… While that reliability can sometimes be comforting, Gonville’s revelations, when they come, are so telegraphed they provide little room for genuine, transformative insight, particularly in the closing passages of the book, where they’re needed most.