Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family

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"Hi, it's Jeff." Silence. "Your grandson," I added.
"Oh. Yes. Jeff. How are you?"
I told him I'd like to stop by and introduce him to my wife.
"Great," he said, sounding genuinely surprised. "Why don't you come by and pet the robots?"

In Sunnyvale, California, in 1979, Jeff Goodell's family lived quietly on Meadowlark Lane, unaware that their town was soon to become ground ...

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Overview

"Hi, it's Jeff." Silence. "Your grandson," I added.
"Oh. Yes. Jeff. How are you?"
I told him I'd like to stop by and introduce him to my wife.
"Great," he said, sounding genuinely surprised. "Why don't you come by and pet the robots?"

In Sunnyvale, California, in 1979, Jeff Goodell's family lived quietly on Meadowlark Lane, unaware that their town was soon to become ground zero in the digital revolution. Then one day his mother announced that she and his father were divorcing after twenty years of marriage. Big deal, thought Jeff. "Everybody we knew was splitting up-it was the romantic equivalent of the pet-rock craze." Over the next decade, Silicon Valley boomed, and the Goodell family unraveled. Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family is the story of a fragile, all-too-ordinary family caught at the epicenter of one of the great economic, cultural, and technological explosions in recent history.

After the divorce, Goodell's mother went to work for a little company called Apple Computer and began her ascent into the new world; his father, a landscape contractor who valued plants and trees over bits and bytes, found himself alone and falling farther and farther behind. For the Goodell children, the aftershocks brought pain and confusion: Jeff ran off to Lake Tahoe and the fast track to nowhere; his younger brother, Jerry, began a nightmarish descent into drugs, alcohol, and sexual experimentation; and eleven-year-old Jill bounced between two houses, struggling to make sense of her shattered world.

Watching it all was grandfather Leonard Goodell, a Westinghouse ur-geek who-even in his late seventies-still had enough mental horsepower to work as a lead engineer in a robotics factory. But as Leonard watched his son's family fall apart, he realized his worldly success had not come without a human cost, and near the end of his life he began his own quest for forgiveness and redemption.

Sunnyvale is a portrait of a way of life that is no more, in a place where progress runs wild. It is about individuals struggling to make lives for themselves in a brutally Darwinian world. Above all, it is about what we owe to the people we love. A unique and compelling family story, it is also a resonant document of our age.

About the Author:

Jeff Goodell is the author of The Cyberthief and the Samurai. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Wired, and GQ. A fourth-generation Californian, he now lives in upstate New York.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Silicon Valley bubble burst early for Goodell, who tossed away a plum gig at the pre-IPO Apple Computer to hustle blackjack tables at Lake Tahoe, becoming "the worst-dressed dealer in the state of Nevada." Yet that missed opportunity has been the least of his worries, he relates in this deeply emotional memoir about the ups and downs--mostly downs--of a "suburban American post-divorce, post-nuclear family." The implicit optimism in the name Sunnyvale, the Valley suburb where Goodell grew up in the late 1970s, proves grimly ironic as his father, a failed landscape contractor, dives into an emotional tailspin after a 1979 divorce and eventually succumbs to lung cancer. His mother, meanwhile, suffers scars from a burnt-out marriage she never wanted. The centerpiece of the book is Goodell's "nightmare of co-dependency" with his wildly unstable younger brother, a promising musician who pickled himself with alcohol before he was ravaged by AIDS. Caught in the middle of it all, Goodell describes himself as a vacant lot polluted by family toxins; this memoir is his remediation project, an attempt to sift through the lingering emotional sludge in search of some purifying understanding of the family's implosion. While the high-tech Valley subtext is not without interest (Apple gurus Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak make cameo appearances), Goodell's real subject is the paternal negligence that was carried from father to son through three generations in his family. Now a successful journalist in New York with children of his own, Goodell writes with more raw power than literary polish, ending with a hopeful vow to break the cycle of dysfunctional dads. Agent, Flip Brophy. 5-city tour. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Publishers Weekly
The Silicon Valley bubble burst early for Goodell, who tossed away a plum gig at the pre-IPO Apple Computer to hustle blackjack tables at Lake Tahoe, becoming "the worst-dressed dealer in the state of Nevada." Yet that missed opportunity has been the least of his worries, he relates in this deeply emotional memoir about the ups and downs--mostly downs--of a "suburban American post-divorce, post-nuclear family." The implicit optimism in the name Sunnyvale, the Valley suburb where Goodell grew up in the late 1970s, proves grimly ironic as his father, a failed landscape contractor, dives into an emotional tailspin after a 1979 divorce and eventually succumbs to lung cancer. His mother, meanwhile, suffers scars from a burnt-out marriage she never wanted. The centerpiece of the book is Goodell's "nightmare of co-dependency" with his wildly unstable younger brother, a promising musician who pickled himself with alcohol before he was ravaged by AIDS. Caught in the middle of it all, Goodell describes himself as a vacant lot polluted by family toxins; this memoir is his remediation project, an attempt to sift through the lingering emotional sludge in search of some purifying understanding of the family's implosion. While the high-tech Valley subtext is not without interest Apple gurus Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak make cameo appearances, Goodell's real subject is the paternal negligence that was carried from father to son through three generations in his family. Now a successful journalist in New York with children of his own, Goodell writes with more raw power than literary polish, ending with a hopeful vow to break the cycle of dysfunctional dads. Agent, Flip Brophy. 5-city tour. July Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Just when we were starting to think that everybody in Silicon Valley must be a carefree gazillionaire, Goodell comes along to root us in reality with this sobering portrait of his dysfunctional Sunnyvale, CA. Goodell (The Cyberthief and the Samurai), a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, presents a moving memoir of his family's growth and disintegration over the last 40 years, paradoxically juxtaposed against the screaming, relentless drive to wealth and success in his hometown, which happens to be in the middle of Silicon Valley. From the belly of the beast comes a mindful story that will resonate with countless thousands of other families as they struggle with multiple divorces, alcohol and drug abuse, parent-child identity traumas, and emotionally distant relatives. While certainly not as extraordinary a memoir as Mary Karr's The Liar's Club (LJ 6/1/95), this heartfelt yet respectful family portrait is an admirable addition to the rapidly growing ranks of books that cathartically write out the traumas of the past. It's useful to be reminded how bound we are to family and how common family anguish is, permeating even the gilt-edged homes in Silicon Valley.--Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From The Critics
Something is shifting in Silicon Valley. Internet millionaires still populate the lavish homes that dot the scrubby hills between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., but the region's perception of itself is maturing, morphing from a never-never land of glitter and glory to a place that looks a little more like the rest of the country. It's a place that blends human successes with failures, and one that can't be reduced to market caps or IPOs.

After two decades bulldozing -- metaphorically and literally - over the past, Silicon Valley residents may now be ready to look for roots. Maybe, as the region and its frenetic residents age, they are ready to celebrate their own sons and daughters.

Jeff Goodell must hope so. A freelance writer and the author of The Cyberthief and the Samurai, Goodell grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., which sits smack-dab in dot-com land. In his new book, Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, Goodell tells about watching his hometown transform from middle-class suburbia to a center of wealth creation.

The question is, will any one care about what Goodell witnessed from the late 1970s on? As far as Silicon Valley's rise is concerned, he wasn't much more than a bystander. He played a bit part as an administrative assistant at Apple for a few months in 1980, then abandoned the then-unknown company for gambling and girls in Lake Tahoe.

But Sunnyvale isn't about Sunnyvale, really. It's about the deterioration of the Goodell family. Divorce, drug abuse, teenage rebellion, poverty, death - it's all there, and in graphic, often depressing detail.

Here, though, setting is everything. In the literary sense, the growing influence of the Valley's new rich makes the family's fall that much more poignant. In the commercial sense, the Valley is "hot" and the book's publisher is clearly targeting an audience it deems hungry for information about it. Even as Goodell's younger brother descends into drug addiction, his younger sister drops out of high school, and his father is diagnosed with cancer, Goodell doesn't let us forget that this is happening in Silicon Valley.

At times, this feels frustratingly artificial. Families are families, after all, even if they're living on the moon. Sunnyvale is far more compelling for its vivid descriptions of four generations of dysfunction than it is for the computers that sprout up around them. Even the most tech-oriented character - Goodell's grandfather, Leonard - is interesting more for his mysterious alienation from his family and inability to communicate with people than for his lifetime of tinkering with machines.

Goodell describes the evolution of the streets, the progress of the boom, even the layout of Apple's offices as if he could divine the meaning of his own troubled past from the city where it took place. The reader is left with a bare-bones history of the Valley lashed to a reasonably engaging memoir that could have taken place almost anywhere.

This is a failure of writing, though, not of concept. The very notion that the Valley has a history beyond that of Steve Jobs and the gang is an important one. While Goodell believes that growing up in Silicon Valley deeply affected his family, in an odd way he proves the opposite: People's lives are distinct, shaped more by those around them than by the city in which they live.

Maslin
In his perceptive memoir of growing up in a household that was postnuclear with a vengeance, Jeff Goodell refers to "my train wreck of a family" and illustrates why that is, if anything, an understatement...a book that vividly characterizes a new, fumbling, casually disconnected style of family life and ponders its ultimate price...
The New York Times
Francine Prose
Heartbreakingly honest. . . . A testament to the resilience of people like Jeff Goodell, who survived the wreckage of one unhappy family to form a happier one of his own: to marry, father twins, and write this compassionate and affecting memoir.
Elle
James Fallows
This is a riveting memoir, hard to stop reading and hard to forget. It is slyly presented as being about life in the high-tech economy, but it's really about life.
Kirkus Reviews
Techie journalist Goodell (The Cyberthief and the Samurai, not reviewed) presents a touching family portrait as well as an acute look at the social implications of the information age. Goodell's story (named for his bright California hometown) opens in 1979, when, after 21 years of marriage, Goodell's mother tells her children that she and their father are getting divorced. This was no crisis to Goodell, who recalls thinking that "divorce felt more like a step into the modern world than the breaking of a sacred covenant." But the split proves to be the first of many dark clouds in his family's future, and Goodell is much more of a family guy than this initial reaction suggests. He documents and tries to reason with the slow breakdown of a family he loves dearly—a grandfather who valued engineering over family, a father destroyed by divorce, a mother who learns computer code and remarries, a brother ravaged by drugs and alcohol, and a sister struggling amidst the confusion. Goodell also speaks sincerely of his own rebellions, passions, and adventures—and of his love-hate relationship with technology. He races bikes, works a short stint at a company known by the "funny name" of Apple Computer, leaves home to work in a Lake Tahoe casino, discovers love and journalism, and continually worries about his family. Founded on family history and set in the accelerating world of Silicon Valley, Goodell's story is linked meaningfully to the past and the future in his attempt to explain addiction, disease, desire, jealousy, and regret by finding "the faulty line of code that causes the whole system to crash." And, in trying (unsuccessfully) to explain it allthroughscientific logic, he proves that love is not a quantifiable entity. Anyone who has ever had a family or a computer can relate to Goodell's story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679456988
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 252
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Goodell is the author of The Cyberthief and the Samurai. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Wired, and GQ. A fourth-generation Californian, he now lives in upstate New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

As a kid, I always felt lucky. I had a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, four grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, two dogs, a surly cat named Princess, and a brand-new house in a brand-new world. Even the name of the town I lived in made me feel lucky: Sunnyvale.

I loved the word Sunnyvale. It was different from the names of towns around us-like San Jose and Palo Alto and San Francisco, which had a dreamy, old Spanish romance about them. And it was not a name like Silicon Valley, which Sunnyvale was right in the middle of, but which always made me think of breasts and robots. The word Sunnyvale had utopian flair. It suggested to me that I lived in a special place-a world of sunshine and progress, of new gizmos and old fruit trees, where life promised to be a rocket ride across friendly skies. Streets were named after birds and flowers, and I could walk all the way to school on beautifully curving sidewalks, and my fourth-grade class took field trips to buildings where people smashed atoms and built satellites. How could I not feel lucky? I lived in a place where, as my mother often counseled me after a hard day, "Everything will work out okay."

And for a long time, I believed her. The pictures on the TV news of bloody American soldiers being lifted into helicopters, the resignation of the president, the death of Elvis-none of that rocked me. Then one morning in the spring of 1979, my mother said firmly, "I have something I need to talk to you and your brother and sister about. Let's go sit down." I knew by the disturbingly unsunny look on her face that this was a serious matter. We tromped single-file into the familyroom.

I was nineteen at the time, the oldest of three kids in my family. Like most other seventies teenagers with social aspirations, I wore a puffy down jacket on even the mildest days and had let my hair grow out long enough that I could chew on my bangs. I wasn't a stoner, but I smoked dope at parties, especially if the party was at my friend Rod's house, where the nights often ended with Dark Side of the Moon blasting and everyone taking off their clothes and jumping into the pool. My brother, Jerry, was twenty-two months younger than me, a senior in high school with sun-bleached blond hair and a soft, gentle face that featured none of my adolescent cockiness. My sister, Jill, had just turned eleven and was a hazel-eyed girl whose bedroom was covered with posters of the Bay City Rollers.

My mother sat on the edge of our green plaid sofa. On good days, she looked a little like Liz Taylor without the movie-star glitz: dark hair, soft round face, a hint of tragedy in every smile. On bad days, like this one, her face looked like a thundercloud that was ready to burst from pent-up emotion.

As we waited for her to speak, the word cancer flashed in my mind. I'd been obsessed with the word lately. I often checked my body for lumps and lay in bed at night imagining tumors coiling through my body, their tentacles rooting into my liver and kidneys. Now I wondered whether these nightmares had been premonitions and our mother was about to tell us she was going to die. In that split second, I was already asking myself, "Why her?" I loved my mother. Not only that, she was an extremely cool person. She had been only nineteen when I was born-she felt practically like my older sister. She listened to Creedence and the Allman Brothers just like I did, danced with my friends at my parties, and never blew a gasket when she found an empty beer can in the backyard. Lately, she had been kicking up her heels a bit. She had frizzed her hair, started wearing paisley blouses and big beaded necklaces, and decided, for the first time in her adult life, that she wanted to get a job. In a town like Sunnyvale, which was stocked with engineers and their obedient wives, this was a revolutionary act. My mother had talked to a neighbor who was an executive at a data-storage company, and before long she was working in the file room.

My father was not thrilled. He liked the idea of my mother staying at home with us kids. For her to be off, working in an office at a big company that built computer stuff, just seemed wrong to him. He worried that people would think he could not provide for his family on his own.

My father's name was Ray. When I was a kid, I thought he was a big, noble man, my own Paul Bunyan. He was six foot two, with callused hands and a worn, slender, handsome face, dazzling green-gold eyes, and light brown hair that was so fine it danced with the slightest stirring of air-a closing door, a cough. He worked in the landscape-contracting business, building city parks and beautifying highways around the Valley, and was happiest when he had dirt under his fingernails. He loved to hunt and fish and tried to pass his love of the outdoors on to me. He taught me how to shoot a rifle and split kindling wood and thread a worm onto a hook. More than anything else, he loved to build things. He turned our garage into a family room, moved the location of the front door, built a carport, a workshop, a laundry room, and benches in the backyard. I could always tell when things weren't going well at work or when he was troubled by something at home, because that was when he started a new project. Pounding nails was his form of psychotherapy.

Of all his projects, however, the fireplace in the family room was the one he was most proud of. It was a massive brick and stone structure, more appropriate for a castle in the English countryside than a flimsy tract home in Sunnyvale, where the temperature rarely dipped below forty degrees. The firebox was large enough to roast an ox and sat on a two-foot-high hearth made of old cobblestones he'd dug up on a job in San Francisco. My father had laid every brick and stone himself, buttering them with mortar, stringing them along a plumb line. It had taken him months of weekends and evenings to complete and required a devotion that was as much spiritual as physical. Over the years, the fireplace radiated that devotion back to us in heat and light. It became our family totem pole, our mosh pit, our sacred site. It was where we opened our Christmas presents and sang "Happy Birthday to You" and talked about love and the threat of nuclear war.

Now I stared at those same bricks and stones, suddenly terrified of the bomb my mother was about to drop.

"Your father and I have decided to get a divorce," she said plainly and without tears.

Divorce! I exhaled, relieved. Unlike cancer, this was a word I could handle.

To me, divorce felt more like a step into the modern world than a breaking of a sacred covenant. In the late 1970s, it seemed like everybody we knew was splitting up-it was the romantic equivalent of the Pet Rock craze. My uncle Bob, who wore leather sandals from Tijuana and told jokes about traveling salesmen who got the clap, had ended his marriage with his go-go boot-wearing wife, Sheila, and taken up with a series of flashy women. My best friend's father, a building contractor who kept tightly rolled joints in the ashtray of his van, ran off with a dental hygienist. Even my uncle Dick, a straitlaced mid-level manager at Hewlett-Packard, split with his wife and took up with a succession of free-spirited female companions.

My mother did her best to make the divorce seem like a rational and sensible decision. She told us that it was no reflection of her feelings for us, that she and my father still loved us deeply, and that they would both continue to be parts of our lives.

Jill was the only one of us who showed any emotion: Her eyes welled up, and she ran out of the room. My mother followed her.

I looked over at Jerry.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine."

We stared at the wall for a moment.

"This is no big deal," I said.

"Yeah," he said.

"It doesn't mean anything."

"I know."

Then Jerry went into his bedroom and put on a Van Halen album and that was the end of it.

Or so I thought. At some point, as I sat there in the family room, staring at those massive hearthstones, it dawned on me that there had been only four people present for the announcement, not five: Where was our father? He prided himself on always being there for his kids, no matter what. I couldn't believe he would dodge an important moment like this.

But he had. Later, my mother explained to me that my father was too torn up to face us and thought it'd be better for everyone if he wasn't around when she broke the news. I was not sympathetic. In fact, I thought it was cowardly.

When my father turned up the next day-he just pulled into the driveway in his white Chevy El Camino as if he'd run to the store for a carton of milk-he tried to act like it was no big deal, but even I could see how busted up he was inside. For a family man like my father, a man who had put all his eggs in one basket, so to speak, and carried that basket around for twenty years, this was the worst thing that could have happened to him. So he pretended it wasn't happening. He told us that he and my mother were "separating," but that he hoped things would work out. I nodded and shrugged and avoided looking him in the eye, afraid of what I might see. I couldn't believe that the man who often held me responsible for my actions was dodging responsibility for his own.

A few weeks later, Jerry and I took off on a trip to Europe that we'd planned for months. On the flight to London, Jerry and I hardly talked about the divorce. I think he believed that when he returned home, our mother and father would have worked it out and everything would be back to normal. I knew that wouldn't be the case. I knew it was over, but I didn't care. I thought breaking up a family was like breaking up with a girlfriend: There would be a few months of mooning and heavy hearts, then we'd move on.

Jerry got homesick and flew back after about four weeks in Europe. I stayed four months, rattling around with my backpack and Eurail Pass. I'd planned to go to India, but the farthest east I got was Istanbul; overland travel across Iran was extremely dangerous for Americans at the time, and I was too poor to fly. Instead, I spent a month crawling around ancient ruins on the Turkish coast. At a café in Marmaris, I ordered a peculiar-looking dish that I thought was roasted eggplant but might well have been decomposing eggplant, contracted dysentery, and headed home.

When I returned, I was greeted with a surreal sight: The family portrait was just as it had been when I'd left-big house, big fireplace, two dogs, my mother cooking dinner, Jill and Jerry battling over the TV-except my father had been airbrushed out of the picture.

vvvv

Years later, I learned that when my mother had told my father she wanted to split up, his initial reaction had been disbelief. After all, he had just finished building a new upstairs addition, including a spacious bedroom suite. (It was a typically well-intentioned but clueless gesture, as if there were no problems in their marriage that a bigger master bath wouldn't fix.) He accused my mother of sabotaging their marriage and stealing his family from him, but his anger was brief and shallow because he knew it wasn't true. They were splitting up not because she had fallen in love with someone else but because she was bored. As my mother told me years later, "I wanted to dance." She meant that literally and metaphorically, and my father knew it. At one point, he fell to his knees and promised my mother that if she stayed, he would jazz up their lives; as proof, he offered to take her to Tahiti for a week. She declined.

Finally, my father decided that the best thing to do was give my mother some space. So while Jerry and I were in Europe, he moved into a two-bedroom condo in Cupertino. He believed his departure was only temporary-a matter of a few months, maybe-before my mother came back around. The condo was bike-riding distance from our house in Sunnyvale, but it was a different world-a lonely and anonymous place with a small kitchen window that looked out over a concrete side yard, and dark bedrooms with shag carpet and flimsy doors. It had no fireplace, just forced-air heating.

I was in no rush to visit my father after I returned from my trip. A week passed, then another; finally my mother practically begged me to stop by and see him. Out of respect more for her than for him, I agreed.

When I arrived, my father's eyes lit up. He invited me in, and we sat at the small rectangular table in the kitchen and drank instant coffee. He was still a young man-he'd just turned forty-three-but he looked as if he'd aged ten years in the four months since I'd seen him last. He was a person who thrived on fresh air and sunlight; in the condo, he lived like a caged bear. His shoulders were always brushing against walls, his eyes drifting toward the window, searching for soft, green space and finding only cyclone fence, concrete, and telephone wires.

"So you had a good time in Europe?" he asked.

I nodded and gave him a quick review of my trip-the Eiffel Tower, the midnight sun in Norway, the Alps. Recounting this for my father was all the sweeter because I owed him nothing for it-I'd paid for the trip myself, out of money I'd earned doing odd jobs. My father listened, slurped coffee, nodded. He didn't care about my trip. He cared that I was there, sitting across from him at his kitchen table, telling him about it.

When I finished, my father picked at a callus on his palm. I could see he was working himself up to something. Finally, he said, "What's new with your mother?"

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Goodell
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First Chapter

He gave me a small smile--more of a nod, really--that said, "I'm here with you, my brother, I did not let you down." And he didn't. He presented the ring on cue, and I was conscious of his eyes upon me as I said, "I do" and then leaned over to kiss Michele with enough happiness to rip her dress. We turned around and walked down the aisle, flashing past four generations of family faces, the great warmth beaming from my father, my mother's tears, my sister with a bouquet of flowers in her hand, Pop in his white jacket and a western string tie, Nan snapping pictures, Michele's mother and father and relatives from Germany, uncles and aunts and nephews and second cousins, many of them strangers to me, but all of us linked by blood and history.

The reception was held on a basketball court in a nearby community center. The mariachi band tuned up as we poured champagne and filled our plates with red snapper. When the moment for the toast came, I glanced at my father, whose eyes were fixed with concern on Jerry--he seemed poised to jump up and tackle him if he said a wrong word. I knew Jerry had been working on his speech for months. He had called me a half-dozen times in the middle of the night and said, "What do you want me to say?" And I had always told him the same thing: "Whatever you want." I knew that he had looked at books of wedding toasts and quizzed our mother, our father, our sister, my closest friends. I was prepared for anything.

Jerry rapped his spoon against his champagne glass. The room quieted. All heads turned toward him. He rose unsteadily, his glass in hand. He looked around the room. He started to say something, then caught himself. He seemed confused, not sure what to do. Finally he said--no, blurted--"To Jeff and Michele. I love them both to death." He looked like he wanted to say more, but tears began to flow, and he sat down quickly.

After the wedding, I thought things were calming down in my family. It'd been eight years since my parents' divorce; the hurt and anger of the split was dissipating. Jerry seemed to be finding his balance; Jill was holding down a good job; my mother and father were both in love again. And I was as happily married as a man could be.

As time passed, I began to see that what had happened to my family was by no means unusual, nor was it particularly nasty, as far as divorces went. And frankly, I was sick of thinking about it. Okay, so my parents split up. Get over it. Whenever I was asked what happened to my parents' marriage--as I often was at parties in Manhattan, where expatriate suburbanites of my generation swapped tales of our parents' divorces as if they were baseball cards--I simply said: "My mother and father got married too young. They didn't know what love was." And that was true enough. But mostly, I was tired of looking backward. I was married now, living on a different coast. It was time to build my own life.

Work was a big problem for me. Once my teaching gig at Columbia was over, my job prospects looked dim. I had no novel to sell, no screenplay, no collection of short stories. I could either continue teaching, probably at some third-rate state college, or apply for a job in corporate PR. Either one was its own kind of hell. Then one afternoon, at a going-away party for one of my professors, I happened to meet Pat Towers, the wife of Robert Towers, who was then the chairman of the writing department at Columbia. Pat mentioned that she was involved with a new weekly magazine in Manhattan and that her husband had suggested that I might be interested in trying my hand at journalism. Where Professor Towers had gotten that idea, I don't know--I'd never so much as covered a high-school soccer game. Nevertheless, I told Pat I'd give it a try.

A few weeks later, I visited her at the offices of the magazine in a loft in the East Village. She introduced me to the city editor, a tall, witty southerner named Eric Etheridge. Pat had given him a couple of my short stories to read--what he thought of them, he didn't say. But he did point to a headline in the New York Post. "A twenty-two-year-old cop had his head blown off last night by a drug dealer in Queens," Eric said. "Why don't you go out there and see what you can come up with? Play Jimmy Breslin for an afternoon." Given my total inexperience as a journalist, that was like telling a Little Leaguer to go play Mark McGwire for an afternoon. But I took the subway out to Queens anyway and looked at the shattered glass in the street where Officer Eddie Byrne had been sitting in his squad car, reading the sports pages of the Post, when a twenty-three-year-old crack dealer walked up and blasted him in the head. Officer Byrne probably never knew what hit him. I wandered around with a notebook, chatting with the patrolmen guarding the scene, slipping under the yellow crime-scene tape that marked off the house where the shooter had been arrested. I stayed up all night writing 750 words, then turned it in to Eric the next morning. He ran it as the lead story in the city section and paid me $125--my first fee as a writer. That night, Michele and I celebrated by spending an extravagant sum--seven dollars--on a bottle of wine.

I immediately gave up writing fiction, which suddenly felt like an adolescent indulgence, and threw myself into journalism. I loved hanging out with taxi drivers, drug dealers, disgruntled bureaucrats, tenants'-rights activists. Unlike the 7-Eleven world I'd grown up in, the characters I met in New York seemed vivid, alive, wonderfully and poetically tormented, and corrupt.

Less than a year after Michele and I were married, my mother and Dwight exchanged vows in a small ceremony in my aunt Carole's backyard in California. Jerry and Olga were there, as were Jill and her boyfriend, Ed. I was beginning to see what a good man Dwight was, kind and bighearted, and tried my best to be happy for him and my mother. It wasn't easy. Nothing feels quite so unnatural and strange as watching your mother take vows with a man who is not your father. And it's your new stepfather, of course, who carries the burden of those unsettled feelings. I know Dwight certainly did. He wore them like a crown of thorns.

My mother's wedding could have been a devastating moment for my father, but a few days before the ceremony he announced, in what I thought was a sad and deliberate way, that he and Bev were going to get married, too. Despite the awkward timing of the announcement and my mixed feelings about Bev, I was glad for my father. It was weird thinking about him remarried, too, but I knew that he would never find peace as a single man. If Bev was the woman he chose, that was okay with me.

At my mother's wedding, Jerry seemed happy. I still wasn't sure about the dynamic of his relationship with Olga, but she seemed to steady him, to give him comfort. I'd always heard that alcoholics needed to hit bottom before they straightened up. I wasn't sure where Jerry's bottom had been, but it seemed to me that he'd bumped into something. The most important news was that, for the first time in his life, Jerry had found a job that he was good at. He had talked his way into a job as a salesman at one of the largest motorcycle dealerships in the Valley and was making--or so he told me on the phone--three grand a month in sales commissions. This didn't surprise me. When Jerry wanted to turn it on, he had more charm than a giggling baby. "God, it's nice to be making money for once!" he crowed to me on the phone one night. "I actually bought myself a hundred-dollar pair of tennis shoes yesterday. Do you know how bizarre that felt?"

Jill seemed to be hitting her stride, too. Ed, whom I'd met briefly at my wedding, was a little slick, but he seemed harmless enough. He was a hard-drive engineer and said the words hard drive as if they referred to a part of his anatomy. He was a few years older than Jill, and he always wore tight shirts and seemed to be romantically involved with his own biceps, even though they weren't all that spectacular. At my mother's wedding, he treated Jill with an excess of civility, pulling chairs out for her, opening doors, refilling her wineglass. Jill enjoyed being fussed over like this and smiled like a princess.

It was a very huggy time. We were all in the mood for reconciliation and forgiveness--even my grandfather Leonard, who was pushing eighty now and was considered an irredeemable shit by pretty much everyone who had ever loved him, with the exception of Elaine.

Divorce hadn't slowed Leonard down a bit. A year or so after he dumped Edie and his three sons, he and Elaine ran off to Carson City and got married and started a family of their own. They had two sons: the older was two years older than me, the younger was my age. It was as if Leonard had decided that there was a flaw in the manufacturing of his first family, so he cast them aside and started from scratch.

I'd never had much feeling for the old man. When I was a kid, he and Elaine and their kids often dropped by during the holidays for perfunctory gift swapping. By that time, Leonard and my father had worked things out so that they had a functioning if superficial relationship. I don't think they ever talked about much but the weather and the 49ers' latest draft pick, but they did speak to each other.

To me, Leonard was a cold and scary guy. He was clearly one of those men who had zero rapport with children and saw them as mewling midgets who shit and eat and breed chaos. Still, I was fascinated by him; he was cool, yet so precise, so brainy. I could see it was hard for him to be around regular people, whose clock speeds were not as fast as his. I was also interested in the fact that my grandfather had two kids about my age. It took me a while to figure that one out, and when I did I understood why my father tensed up whenever Leonard was around.

There was no question where my father got his love of building things, though he preferred to work in wood, brick, and mortar, while Leonard's projects were 100 percent electronic. Leonard often claimed to have built the first Walkman, back in 1924, when he was fifteen years old, using a pencil, a crystal, a piece of wire, and an earplug. He'd built it, he claimed, because he was bored on his long walks to school. By twisting the crystal on top of the pencil, he could tune in WBZ out of Springfield, Massachusetts. "My walks became a lot more enjoyable after that," he once told me.

Leonard always had some bizarre project going on in the garage of his Los Altos home. For a while, he was fashioning clocks out of old PC boards, using circles of red and green LEDs as the hour and minute hands. But his real pride and joy was an electric car he built out of an old Ford Pinto. In the late 1970s, an electric car was still a dreamy sci-fi idea. But Leonard, tight old Yankee that he was, got tired of paying high prices for gasoline and decided there had to be a better way. So he stripped the internal-combustion engine out of this old Pinto and installed an aircraft generator under the hood. Then he mounted five car batteries in the trunk, another four where the radiator used to be, and another seven in the area that had formerly been the backseat. Presto, his own homemade electric car. It'd go sixty-five miles without recharging, with a top speed of about 35 MPH--the ideal commuter car. He'd come gliding by our house in Sunnyvale once in a while, the car moving down the street like a silent ghost, the old man peering out the window with big, proud smile on his face.

I was not impressed. By the time I was in high school, I'd pretty much decided that Leonard preferred machines to human beings. That was fine with me. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven, I don't think I exchanged ten words with the guy. Not surprisingly, Leonard was the only family member who had not come to my wedding, even though he was in fine health and lived an hour away from the church. My father said it was because he didn't want to run into Edie. That figured. Forty years after he'd dumped her, he still couldn't bear to look her in the eye.

Not long after Michele and I were married--maybe it was the winter of 1987-1988--an odd thing happened. Jill told me that Leonard had stopped by our house in Sunnyvale three times in the last month to visit. "He just knocks on the door, and when I answer it he just stands there in his hat and his raggy sweater and says he just wants to say hello," my sister told me. "I invite him in, but he never accepts. He asks me about Dad, about you, about Jerry. Then he leaves. It's really weird."

Michele, who had never met Leonard, urged me to call him.

"I don't have anything to say to him," I told her.

"Maybe he has something to say to you."

I doubted it. Leonard meant nothing to me, and I doubted I meant anything to him.

A few months later, Michele and I planned a trip to California. Before we left, I found myself asking my father for Leonard's phone number. I was, I admit, curious about what was on the old man's mind. I wondered if he had some confession to make or perhaps some family secret to reveal.

I dialed the number my father gave me. "Leonard Goodell," a voice answered, gruff and impatient.

"Hi, it's Jeff."

Silence.

"Your grandson," I added.

" Oh. Yes. Jeff. How are you?"

I told him I'd like to stop by when I was in California and introduce him to my wife.

"Great," he said, sounding genuinely surprised. "Why don't you come by and pet the robots?"

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2001

    couldn't put this one down..

    I had hoped that this book wasn't going to be a dull chronological history of the Silicon Valley. I was pleasantly suprised to find that Sunnyvale read like a fascinating piece of fiction (the book is based on a real family which made the story all that more interesting and unbelievable). The characters and the unfortunate events that transpired in their lives were riveting.I found myself unable to remove the characters from my thoughts long after I finished the book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2000

    One interesting non-typical read!

    I was all charged up to read about Silicon Valley and the evoling hi-tech world, but instead I found myself finding out about the lives of people and not the tech industry. BUT, I was not disappointed and soon began to love the story behind this one family's struggles and triumphs!

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