In powerful and spirited prose, Peter Birkenhead recounts a childhood spent trying to make sense of his father, a terrifying, charismatic presence who brutalized his family physically and emotionally at the same time that he enchanted them with his passion and whimsy. An avid gun collector yet an anti-war activist, a popular economics professor and a wife-swapping nudist, a leftist and a lifelong fan of the British Empire who would occasionally don an authentic pith helmet and imitate Michael Caine’s performance as the heroic Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead in the bloody war film Zulu, he was a man who could knock his young son down the stairs one day and the next cry about putting the family’s aged dog to sleep.
Such is the contradictory figure at the center of this astonishingly candid and shocking memoir. As a young adult, Birkenhead reacted to his volatile childhood by forgetting its worst moments. He adopted all the trappings of normalcy, threw himself into a career as an actor, landing parts in Broadway plays like Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, both by Neil Simon, and found himself often playing characters who were angry at their fathers. Yet he discovered that he was sleepwalking through life, on occasion falling into rages that reminded him of his father.
Then at thirty-one, eleven years after his parents’ divorce, Birkenhead told his mother about his recurring dream of flying down the stairs of their house as a young boy. She revealed that it wasn’t a dream, but a memory from his early childhood of being carried rapidly down the stairs by his mom after his father had pointed a gun at them. The revelation about the dream sparked the painful yet necessary process of examining his childhood and of ultimately moving beyond it, forcing Birkenhead to finally confront his father in a way that released him and his family from this complicated legacy. Combining the terror and wit of Running with Scissors, the poignancy and sense of place of The Tender Bar, with the sparkling prose of Oh the Glory of It All, Gonville is light on its feet even as it deals in the darkest of family tales. A harrowing and often humorous story of a son coming to terms with his alternately charming, cruel, generous, and violent father.
About the Author
Peter Birkenhead is a regular contributor to Salon.com, where he writes personal essays and cultural criticism. An essay about Oprah’s endorsement of The Secret was the most-read piece on the site in 2007. He’s also a regular contributor to Marie Claire Magazine, and has written for GQ, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and other publications. As an actor he has extensive stage and television credits. He lives in Los Angeles.
Praise for Gonville: A Memoir…
“Fraught and funny. . . . Birkenhead’s memoir is intensely detailed, thus the feelings magnified, and full of the blistering ambivalence of a son who wondered whether it would have been easier to have a dad who was ‘all bad instead of almost good.’”
“Charming and horrifying. . . . Birkenhead is a deft foreshadower, dropping dark little clouds over what seems to be a heartwarming scene and swinging back later to collect the thunderclaps. He is a master of the throwaway detail that later becomes the pivot into a horror movie.”
“The intelligent facility of Birkenhead’s writing shines. . . . Gonville is a captivating journey through the humor, pitfalls, delusions, and dangers of extreme family dysfunction and the boundless capacity of human love.”
“Birkenhead is a writer for Salon.com, and his descriptive abilities and memory for detail are razor-sharp. Though the adult Birkenhead seeks answers from both parents about the details of his chaotic childhood, unsurprisingly, in real life, there are no tidy resolutions.”
“Birkenhead’s navigation of his budding masculinity—even through ominous stretches where he adopts his father’s mood swings—is poignant and often tears-in-the-eyes hilarious.”
“An affecting . . . sometimes laugh-out-loud funny account of growing up with a crazy father.”
“By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Peter Birkenhead’s Gonville is a son’s-eye view of growing up with an emotional terrorist: his father. The memoir is a deft and cunning performance, told in jaunty prose which elegantly maps the geography of fear and of a child’s sad little wish to be loved.”
—John Lahr, senior drama critic, The New Yorker
“Few books I’ve ever read succeed like Gonville at capturing the crazed inventiveness of which the unhappy family is capable. Given the character of Peter Birkenhead’s father, it’s unsurprising that his son’s terrific memoir is full of sadness, humor, and high absurdity. More remarkable is the tolerance, sanity, and good humor that Birkenhead has won from experiences hardly conducive to those traits.”
—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision and co-editor of n + 1
“Peter Birkenhead’s candor, humor, and insight about his father and ultimately himself combine to make this a highly enjoyable page-turner. It’s Birkenhead’s gift as a writer that the book is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is kick-you-in-the-chest brutal, and you’ll be ready for the second volume as soon as you finish this one.”
—Elizabeth Crane, author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter
“In his debut memoir, Gonville, Peter Birkenhead breezily performs some of the most challenging creative magic. He mines insight from confusion, turns tragedy into comedy, and darkness into light. In the greatest trick of all, he turns the pain of his childhood into reading pleasure. It’s a major accomplishment.”
—Evan Handler, actor (Sex and the City; Californication) and author (Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors; It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive)