The barbed tale of a writer’s beginnings, embarrassed yet fascinated by melodramatic, bohemian attorney parents.
Novelist Siegel (All Will Be Revealed, 2007, etc.) dramatizes a surreal upbringing fraught with deception. His mother pushed him toward art and culture, while his father sank into malfeasance. “We were the kind of family that ate out a lot, because home was too rancorous and depressing, and we tended to be a little nicer to each other in public,” he writes. The author’s obese, grandiose father was jailed for too-close involvement with his clients, including counterculture radicals, drug dealers, and the Hells Angels. “In this atmosphere,” he writes, “we could be the normal ones, the representatives of middle-class decency.” After prison, his father rebuilt his practice, but with reduced reputation and income. When one client gave him illicit cash with which to flee the country, he squandered it on junk food and fancy clothes. “I’m not sure why he decided to stay; it’s very possible that he was simply too broken to leave,” writes Siegel. The family’s chaotic domestic life took strange turns, including the adoption of an abused boy to whom, against the author’s expectations, his parents were devoted: “We liked seeing ourselves as the family in charge of the orphanage, full of beautiful waifs.” Still, Siegel’s father continued to neglect his health and responsibilities, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s long after his behavior became erratic. Breaking away, the author became consumed with Asian culture, living in Japan while laboring over a novel about his father’s crimes, unable to find an authentic voice. Siegel displays his strengths in this memoir: lean, acute prose and sharply recalled environmental details of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s. He examines the familial ties that bind with love and exasperation, and his portrait of his family’s self-destructive contradictions is probing and memorable. The sections focused on his own intellectual growth can seem comparatively meandering and repetitive.
Dramatic, keenly observed memoir of familial entropy set against the urban “bad old days.”