Family Guise


After four years away, Sean Wilsey returned from Italy and ate lunch with his father. He had spent that time in a sort of emotional deprogramming center called Amity, the latest in a series of last resorts his parents hoped would dissuade him from a life of drug use and disillusionment. Oh the Glory of It All is, among other things, a travelogue of wasted youth and attempts at reclamation. First was prep school at St. Mark’s, where academics were a footnote to drinking, and the exploded bag of discarded beer cans on the seniors-only quad was an “allegorical tableau.” Inevitable expulsion led to another school, Woodhall, and a collection of castaways indifferent to the school’s philosophy of “mak[ing] up educational lacunae.” Amity is the one that sticks, though; Wilsey claims to “have never experienced emotions so powerfully, mysteriously, unwillingly, and eventually, gratefully.”

They ate Italian, naturally, father and son, and Al Wilsey delighted in making his son speak to the waiter in a language he couldn’t understand. Language is one of Wilsey’s paramount interests, and the inability to communicate is his primary preoccupation. Of his mother, Wilsey says that “she began to invest—irradiate—her words with emotion.” He’s learned to do the same thing, albeit more subtly. Wilsey’s self-assured enough to portray himself as a less-than-appealing character. When a teenage Wilsey finds some photographs of his naked mother, he decides to keep them, in case he ever needs blackmail material. Wilsey reports the incident with neither guilt nor a plea for sympathy, but simply as a barometer of his relationship with his mother.

Wilsey credits Amity with helping him speak for himself—not only as a writer, but as an adult trying to understand his parents. His mother’s the sort that calls to say, “I think your birthday should be a celebration of me
. I was the one who did all the work. You didn’t do anything!” His father’s new wife, Dede, is more blatantly disinterested; if the book slips at all, it’s in Wilsey’s willingness to cast her in the one-dimensional role of wicked stepmother. Wilsey’s father is the one whose love Sean most desperately craves, for which he works hardest—and most fruitlessly—to win. At lunch, Wilsey asks why there are no pictures of him on his father’s walls. Al Wilsey is abrupt, ignoring his son’s question in favor of a decaf cappuccino. Wilsey is nonplussed. Who orders cappuccino in the afternoon, and decaf cappuccino ever? But, ultimately, he gets it: “He ordered it because of me, because I’ve been in Italy. Drinking this decaf cappuccino is like putting my picture on the walls inside his body.”