All memoirists share an essential challenge: how to keep self-awareness from vaulting into self-absorption. There’s another essential challenge, too, just as important: to follow, as Nabokov put it, “the thematic designs of one’s life.” A memoir is experience alchemized into art. The art lies not only in the fresh efficacy of idea and utterance, but in the story’s armature, its determining designs.
Those admirers of Glen David Gold’s two novels, “Sunnyside” and “Carter Beats the Devil,” won’t be surprised to see that his memoir, “I Will Be Complete,” is a banquet of vivacity, shrewdness and wit, a soiree of heart-wreck wised up by humor. Nor will admirers be surprised by Gold’s welcome gusto as a stylist: His prose overall boasts an assertive, assured presence, unafraid of appealing directly to readers in the realization of its purpose.
What might surprise Gold’s admirers, though, is this memoir’s nearly 500 pages of formlessness, its barrage of the indiscriminate and everyday. It trades narrative ballast and centrality for an almost free-associative glut of experience, and so it cannot be satisfactorily summarized. “I Will Be Complete” is complete all right: Gold seems to have omitted no recollection of his first 30-odd years.
The opening 200 pages are among the most charismatic autobiographical reckonings you will read this year, aglow with rare and exquisite inventories of the self. Prune the tedious chapters of girlfriend woes, working at bookstores and going to concerts — and ignore the chronicling of forgettable friends, roommates, and lovers — and you will locate the spine of Gold’s story: his relationship with his mother, a self-sabotaging figure of dignified ruin, an eager victim of “her ready and resourceful heart.”
For an epigraph, Gold offers this tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: “My mother assures me none of this happened” — which is how you can be certain that most of it did.
Gold’s mother left him mostly alone to raise himself in 1970s San Francisco while she chased bad business ventures and damaged men guaranteed to injure her. In these pages, gold says, “I’m looking for my mother, or what remains of her.” He’s looking for California, too. One of the myriad delights of this memoir is its revealing vista onto the ethos of San Francisco in the ’70s and Los Angeles in the ’80s, deleted worlds in which outrageous characters stagger and strive.
The opening swath is enormously enlivened by an eccentric party-thrower called Peter Charming, one of Gold’s mother’s beaus who becomes something of a paternal force for the young boy. He is also an unrepentant charlatan who’d fit right in with the merry rogues of Chaucer. He drives his muscle car on sidewalks, claims to know Joni Mitchell, and ingests enough drugs to tranquilize a pachyderm. During his time with Charming, Gold was, he says, “a sweaty, chubby, hyper-verbal kid without any grace” who was also “a rich, snotty, egotistical jerk,” though that’s not accurate: he wasn’t a jerk, only a lonesome, lurching outcast in circumstances heaved upon him by his unwell mother.
As a teen, Gold was a more facetious Holden Caulfield: Holden Caulfield transported to the strafing radiance of L.A. “It was disheartening,” he writes, “to be the least handsome person in a given aisle of Tower Records.” The boy isn’t shy about his lofty IQ; he flashes his intelligence because it’s all he has. He goes to boarding school, then Wesleyan, then Berkeley; he dates a lot; he labors to become a writer, all while seeking the fugitive acceptance of peers and kin: “There isn’t much that causes people to recoil more than sensing someone wants to be liked.”
Life, Gold says, “is most often a series of mundane, unlikely events.” Life is, yes, but literature isn’t. Literature is life ordered, patterned and enhanced. If this book is too long by a third, if it’s too much of the same mundane thing, it’s also hard to stay mad at it for its dearth of narrative restraint and cohesion, and for its periodic sputterings of self-pity and grammatical malfeasance, because Gold is a dynamic writer outfitted in wisdom and verve, one whose sentences you’ll want to remember.
Savor this: “The part of my brain that knows how to hurt the people I love moves faster than the part that knows whether I should. Ask anyone who loves me, especially those who don’t anymore.” And this: “For much of my life there has been a circuitous pathway between when something happens and when I react. This gives the illusion of stillness, when in fact it’s about trying to accommodate too much at once.”
To the end, as his mother takes up with an aggressive HIV-infected wastrel, we see the vivid excruciations of being the gifted misfit whose parent needs to be rescued. “There’s an alphabet known to people with parents whose needs flatten their own,” writes Gold. “We recite it to ourselves in times of stress . . . an emotional progression from confusion to guilt to commitment to strength to anger.” The boldest, most troubling lines of the book, about his mother, come at the close: “Two different truths at once: I wished her well. I no longer loved her.”
William Giraldi is the author, most recently, of “The Hero’s Body: A Memoir.”
By Glen David Gold
Knopf. 473 pages. $29.95