A founding McSweeney’s editor tells about his privileged and impressively troubled young years, with surprisingly few missteps on a well-worn path.
Wilsey was blessed and cursed with an extraordinarily messy, dramatic, wealthy family that tore him to shreds when they weren’t casting him aside. The story begins in a frantic flurry that the rest of the book—wonderfully lengthy by the standards of this generation, who normally sum things up in 180 or so loosely spaced pages—will wind itself trying to keep up with: “In the beginning we were happy. And we were always excessive. So in the beginning we were happy to excess.” Wilsey’s father was a millionaire many times over, while his mother was a legendary beauty raised by itinerant heartland preachers—the pair of them whirling dervishes of Bay Area society, she hosting salons and he buzzing over Napa Valley in his helicopter. Wilsey was alternately obsessed over and ignored. Already withdrawn by the time his father (after having an affair with Danielle Steele) left his mother for her best friend, a rapacious social X-ray, he, not much later, became a full-blown delinquent. A rich kid cliché, he shuttled between his sniping parents and rambled through an ’80s adolescence stoned and clueless, slumping further into a self-destructive despondency. Meanwhile, his mother dragged him and a retinue of children around the world in a surreal campaign for peace that was more exasperatingly arrogant one-woman theater (camera crews! meeting Gorbachev!) than humanitarian endeavor. Wilsey’s prose can’t hope to maintain its rather astonishing momentum through almost 500 pages, and so some stretches drag, especially those about the creepy program that seems more cult than school but that does manage to straighten the boy out. Only in his later years does the focus of Wilsey’s self-lacerating style soften somewhat—he’s not a writer you want to see mellow—but it’s a small complaint.
Honest to a fault, richly veined with indelible images: a monumental piece of work.