GONVILLE by Peter Birkenhead


A Memoir
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Stage and TV actor Birkenhead, a Salon.com and Marie Claire contributor, revisits his highly unusual childhood.

The eldest of four, the author grew up in suburban Long Island, where the center of his universe was his capricious, vitriolic father. The book’s title is a nod to Gonville Bromhead, a real-life mid-19th-century British lieutenant portrayed by Michael Caine in Zulu (1964). Gonville was a favorite of Dad, who was known to dress up—in a helmet and red underwear—and impersonate Gonville. An anglophile, nudist and avid gun collector, Birkenhead’s father married his mother when she was 19 and he was 24. From the outside he maintained the appearance of normalcy, working as an economics professor at Brooklyn College. The private dynamics, however, dictated by his erratic mood swings, led to his tormenting of the family, with violence and threats, and nine miserable months living in Sussex, England. Birkenhead’s mother bore the worst of his abuse, including a broken nose and a brush with marital rape after their separation, but she pioneered a successful career writing musicals. The author chronicles his swirling confusion through adolescence as he came to grips with his father’s madness, and darkest, most intriguing part of his memoir centers on his own inner demons. After punching a high-school girlfriend in the face and, years later, kicking in the door of another lover, he was forced to confront the behaviors and instincts inherited from his father. The book originated as a one-man show, and it still possesses a conversational quality, reading like a tempered monologue peppered with explosive crescendos. Birkenhead is less interested in language than pure storytelling, and he pulls no punches in depicting his once-idolized father as a deeply flawed wreck of a man.

Affecting, heavy and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny account of growing up with a crazy father.

Pub Date: March 2nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4165-9883-1
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2009