Glen David Gold’s new memoir is smart, generous and gripping until the very last pages

I Will Be Complete is the tale of a boy’s moral and sentimental education, with all the febrile moods and heart-stopping lurches of a Donna Tartt epic.

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The Los Angeles writer Glen David Gold is best known for rich, panoramic novels such as Carter Beats the Devil and Sunnyside, as well as for being the ex-husband of The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold. I suspect that in time his extraordinary memoir will eclipse all that. It opens with the most American sentences imaginable – or, to be more specific, Californian: “I think you’re an adult when you can no longer tell your life story over the course of a first date. I might have gotten this idea from my parents, because they reinvented themselves so often.”

Gold was born in 1964 to a Jewish cassette-tape tycoon father (subsequently ruined) and an English aristocrat mother (subsequently destitute). Through their astonishing narcissism and childlike capacity for self-delusion, they inadvertently gifted their son a symphonic riches-to-rags-to-riches story that drips with all the great American themes: money and hustle, therapy and reinvention, and ultimately self-reliance. It’s the tale of a boy’s moral and sentimental education, with all the febrile moods and heart-stopping lurches of a Donna Tartt epic.

Gold was a hyper-verbal child with few friends and a large coin collection. Though his early life in Corona del Mar, Orange County was one of modern luxury, he was always under pressure to perform. His “cheerfully amoral” father, Herb – who got rich signing a deal with Tijuana Brass – enjoyed little Glen’s big brain but was “all knees and elbows” when it came to emotions; his migraineur mother took pleasure in her son’s intuition, convinced they shared a psychic connection, which for Gold became “an electric kind of horror”. She was still haunted by her own gothic childhood in a boarding house in London during the Second World War, when her German father was interned on the Isle of Man. Having survived this “hydra’s head of worry”, she feared that the Golds’ jacuzzi lifestyle would make their son too insulated from the world.

As it turned out, the period of the Golds’ lives when they could afford Fabergé chess sets was short-lived: the cassette company went bust and divorce soon followed. Gold’s father went to Chicago in search of money and fine objects; his mother to San Francisco to chase adventure. They reassured each other that their son was a “thirty-six-year-old midget” rather than an anxious ten-year-old insomniac. “The idea,” Gold writes, “was that I was so smart I had placed out of having the reactions a normal kid would. None of us believed that, but it was convenient.”

In San Francisco it soon became apparent that Gold’s mother wasn’t prepared for life as a rich divorcee. She fell under the sway of a blag artist named Peter Charming who claimed to be intimate with Joni Mitchell but whose playmates were mostly bohemian crooks on acid trips. Charming is a character so rascally and exuberant, he could have walked straight out of the pages of The Goldfinch or Great Expectations: he drives on the sidewalk, preys on rich women and, according to one associate, dabbles in white slavery. Unable to distinguish between adventure and danger, love and abuse, Gold’s mother blithely leaves her son in Charming’s care while she makes disastrous investments, brings home heroin addicts who vomit blood over Glen’s bedroom, and disappears to New York, effectively leaving him alone for the best part of a year. By this stage, he’s only 12. Later on, she will deny this ever happened. “My mother believed everything she said,” the author writes, “until the next thing she said.”

The abandonment occurs a fifth of the way through I Will Be Complete and the rest is a vivid account of how Gold navigated a path through his unstable youth to become a novelist, always searching for authentic moments and axioms to live by. Along the way, he introduces us to a huge cast of characters including a gay colleague who pretends he has three children, a God-worshipping junkie who romances his mother, a girlfriend whose ESP is brought on by the band REM and another who masturbates to his writing. But it’s the author’s reckless mother who provides the most compelling character study: an English outsider too easily seduced by the Californian hustle, who ruins her life with every choice she makes, but still clings on “knowing with the cunning of an aristocrat when exactly to pull her troops back from the border”.

There’s something painfully sweet about this memoir, particularly the way Gold wills himself to extract something of value from the pain inflicted by irresponsible adults:

There’s an alphabet known to people with parents whose needs flatten their own. We recite it to ourselves in times of stress, which means we know it by heart. There’s an emotional progression from confusion to guilt to commitment to strength to anger, a rhythm that after a while feels sing-song, as ritualized as our ABCs.

Part of the pleasure of the memoir is in seeing how the events of Gold’s life shape the way he writes about them. He says he’s “missing parts that other people have” but develops other attributes in recompense: an obsessive need to understand relationships, a self-reflexive humour, a determination to pinpoint emotions and a deep care over details.

Only by wresting control of his story from his parents is he able to feel a measure of the security that they denied him. As a boy, he lay in bed, recounting the day’s events in his head until he could settle on some kind of narrative sense: “if I told the story right, I could finally go to sleep. That feeling has never left me. Now, I tell myself if what I say here is true, I will be complete.”

Gold’s memoir is smart, generous and gripping until the very last pages. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2018. 

Will Be Complete: a Memoir
Glen David Gold
Sceptre, 496pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce