‘I think you’re an adult when you can no longer tell your life story over the course of a first date,’ says Glen David Gold. I emerged from his weighty memoir feeling more like I’d been through a marriage: sadder, wiser, still sifting the decades of detail for the moments when a little self-awareness could have spared hearts.
My crush on Gold’s writing dates back to his sensational 2001 debut novel: Carter Beats the Devil. Set in the author’s native California in the 1920s, the tale of rival magicians combined seductively complex characters, wisecracking dialogue and vintage Americana in a plot as ingeniously designed and expertly sprung as an escapologist’s stage. Sunnyside, published in 2009, saw a shift in subject from live-action illusions to Hollywood hocus pocus, underscored by a deepening melancholy.
Both novels shuffled loaded decks of fact and fiction, including real characters such as Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin who both existed, in turn, as figures of infinitely refracted truth and fantasy. Gold’s fascination with these characters clicks into place when he reveals that he spent much of his childhood in the company of an extrovert conman called Peter Charming, who suckered his unstable mother after she divorced his father in the mid 1970s. Gold writes:
I don’t know if the damage he inflicted upon her was worse financially or emotionally. In our family, money is a convenient cipher for the wounds that are harder to qualify. Accounting for his charisma and promises, you could reduce him to an elemental force that moved my mother and myself forward, then backward, then apart.
Gold was born on both Passover and Easter — ‘a Matzo Bunny’ — in Orange County, in 1964. His ‘cheerfully amoral’ father, ‘the only Jewish Republican born between 1910 and 1960 in the city of Chicago’ — had made a fortune inventing a kind of audio cassette and made ‘a prize’ of his beautiful, artistic English wife.
Inviting readers onto a guided tour of the family home, as given by his father, Gold points out the floodlit pool and jacuzzi, the ostentatious pop art and antiques he passed on the way to the avocado-green kitchen and the living room complete with sunken conversation pit and faux Fabergé chess set. The whipped cream on the couple’s 1960s sundae was their ‘genius’ child.
Gold certainly had a smart mouth. But he was an anxious kid,
born with a job. My parents told me they wanted to be parents so they could avoid the mistakes their own parents had made. I think they said this to let me know I was loved, but it made me feel pressure. I was going to have a better childhood. I wasn’t sure what that entailed, but it suggested responsibilities.
When Gold’s father lost his money and his mother followed Peter Charming to San Francisco, their 12-year-old son was left to fend for himself, abandoned for weeks while his mum invested in one flakey scheme after another. The former prodigy gave himself over to early arcade games.
Although Gold’s sentences reflect the surface of the 1970s perfectly, he’s no nostalgic. Those old games had no colours, no sound effects, no levels, one knob. ‘People played a game that even Samuel Beckett would admit had no story line. We must have all been very stupid.’
His mother joked that the clever boy was a ‘30-year-old midget’ while her lover was ‘a big kid’. But the child struggled to make sense of the 1970s party scene. Charming’s lessons on sex and drugs spun in his head. Cops blew marijuana in his face. One night he woke to find a man sitting on the end of his bed. It was a member of the Manhattan Transfer jazz group. Just as readers feel the shadow of paedophilia fall over the page, Gold reveals that the poor guy couldn’t handle the party downstairs either and just wanted to read some comics.
Gold’s novelistic handling of these moments is brilliant. But you doubt whether he can have remembered it all so clearly. Here’s a professional spinner of tall tales who learned his craft at the feet of conscienceless masters. Can we be sure he’s not slipping one over us now? ‘My mother,’ he says, ‘assured me that none of this happened.’
While there may be exaggerations and manipulations, I bought the deep truth of Gold’s book. It’s a dazzlingly insightful account of how the smart children of emotionally ‘shattered’ adults attempt to hold themselves and their parents together as they grow. When Gold fails to make his mother happy, he dates women like her and fails to make them happy too. He writes a fictional account of her life and is told it’s an ‘anti-feminist satire’.
Literary gossip hounds will find little on Gold’s marriage to Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold. Once united by their survival of trauma — rape, in Sebold’s case — they are now divorced. But Gold says he is finally happy. He’s achieved this state by letting go of his need to explain and save his mother. He broke the bonds of her ‘terrible love’. And like his muse, Houdini, Gold has made a moving public spectacle of his escape. I hope it’s not all an act.
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