My Family And Other Glamorous Varmints

By Simon Doonan

Simon & Schuster. 284 pp. $24

Tone is a funny thing. You may think you're composing something chipper and bright, but the final product may come out in another key. Simon Doonan, who has achieved his fame as a window dresser for Barneys New York and a columnist for the New York Observer, obviously set out to write a cheerful, amusing memoir, but his childhood was so relentlessly Dickensian that it's hard for the reader to shake off a feeling of melancholy and futility after finishing it. This tale contains worthy, even historically interesting information, but it's much more sad than the lollygagging public image the author usually projects.

Doonan was born and raised in Reading, England, a part of its postwar, lower-lower middle class. His life task has been to transcend that heritage, to get up and out, around and about -- to make his fortune and make a name for himself. Life dealt him a few iffy cards: He was, by his own account, short, "common" and gay. But Doonan did it. He escaped -- first to London, then to Los Angeles and New York -- via the unlikely vocation of window dressing. He also found the love of his life. But the people he left behind still presumably toiled away at meaningless jobs in the grimmest of surroundings, taking -- as his family did -- glum satisfaction in how tough their lives were.

"When I was six years old," Doonan's memoir begins, "my mother sneezed and her dentures flew out. They hit the kitchen door with a sharp clack! and then rattled sideways across the linoleum floor like a fleeing crustacean." Already we're in a world where people routinely have their teeth pulled in their thirties, where money is scarce, nutrition poor and jobs dead-end or nonexistent. Noonan's father, Terry, spent a good deal of time making homemade wine from potato skins, banana peels or whatever he could find: "Terry made gallons and gallons and gallons of it. . . . Simply put, alcohol took the edge off. Alcohol was the low-cost prescription which enabled Betty and Terry to deal with the strains and unpredictability of life with batty Uncle Ken, not to mention the crazed and belligerent Narg."

That's Noonan's family: Betty and Terry, his curiously negligent parents; Uncle Ken, the resident paranoid schizophrenic; Narg (that's "Gran" spelled backward), suffering the after-effects of a prefrontal lobotomy; Aunt Phyllis, a blind lodger with a series of ever-clumsier seeing-eye dogs; and a cluster of other dubious relatives and boarders, all crammed into a few depressing rooms. There's also his sister, Shelagh, with whom Simon was farmed out to an orphanage so his parents might find work.

Thank goodness, young Simon was blessed with a best friend who mirrored his yearnings in every respect, James ("Biddie") Biddlecombe: "Our malaise can best be summed up as follows: We were a couple of low-rent, latter-day Madame Bovarys. Like Flaubert's anti-heroine, we saw glamour and modish excitement in the faraway and only boredom and dreariness in the here and now." The two boys fed their fantasies by reading glossy magazine articles about the "Beautiful People" and daydreaming about how those elusive creatures might finally be found. They were, in other words, clueless, poor little boys.

They bravely endured their murky childhoods but experienced twin epiphanies when they went on vacation with Biddie's family to "the Butlins Holiday Camp located in the ominously named town of Minehead, a former swamp." These camps for the working class, providing a shrill "antidote to the grim reality of factory life," have been written about with feeling by others, particularly Paul Theroux, who has noted that their price range exactly matched the amount of the British dole. They were meant to be Disneylands for the down and out, jerry-built structures tarted up with all manner of plastic flowers, AstroTurf and artificial tropical rainstorms. Young Simon and Biddie got it simultaneously: You can be residing in gray, damp England but still act as if you're in Togo or Samoa; you can transform your life by the liberal application of theatricality and pretense.

From then on , it was pretty much a straight shot for these two young gay boys. They grew up and moved to London, turning their ugly digs into an iridescent seraglio. Biddie became a cross-dressing cabaret performer; Simon pursued his passion for window dressing. Fortunately, the '60s and '70s came along and their outrageous ways came to be seen as more or less comme il faut.

Growing up, finding out who you are, taking responsibility for what you do: Every life is about that stuff. Simon moved to Hollywood, where he was arrested for drunk driving (unfortunately, while wearing a plaid pleated skirt). He lived a few blocks away from Frederick's of Hollywood in an apartment where Marilyn Monroe supposedly had roomed with Shelley Winters. Simon went into the T-shirt business (at first, out of the back of his truck) and learned entrepreneurial skills. He fell in love with a sweet Latino man named Mundo, who, one horrid day in the '80s, discovered a distinctive purple lesion on his neck. So Simon learned about tending to the dying during the AIDS plague and lost many of his friends.

Flash forward a decade or so. Simon is in New York and in love with a wonderful younger man. His account of meeting his lover's decent, "normal," upper-middle-class New Jersey family is affectionate and mild, suffused with a sense of his astonishing good fortune.

But what of Simon's "real" family? His mother -- whose life, according to this narrative, was one long search for the perfect shade of bleached hair, who bought the most elaborate makeup, the best clothes she could afford (while her children went without) -- has died. Narg is also dead. Crazy Uncle Ken, dead. Blind Aunt Phyllis, dead. What were their lives for? Outside of the alcohol, did they ever have moments of meaning, or joy, or love? It wouldn't seem so. And that's what yields up the lingering taste of depression in this otherwise amusing little book.