Glen David Gold’s earliest memories are of a childhood in which he had everything he could possibly want. But when his father’s fortune disappeared and his parents divorced, Gold fell out of his well-curated Southern California life. He was now growing up by the side of his increasingly erratic mother, among con men and get-rich schemes in ‘70s San Francisco.
Gold brings all his gifts as a novelist to a kaleidoscope of his most formative experiences: his salvation at boarding school; his dream job at an independent bookstore; a punk rock riot; a romance with a femme fatale; the start of his writing career; and his estrangement from his mother, who moved in with her soul mate, a man who threatened to kill her. By turns heartbreaking and disarmingly funny, I Will Be Complete is one son’s journey, a series of love stories layered into a search for autonomy, and, ultimately, a way of letting go.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Long Beach, California
Place of Birth:Hollywood, California
Education:M.F.A., University of California at Irvine, 1998
Read an Excerpt
1. The Last Kings of San Francisco
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. Their stories have odd turns which speak not of one life, but of many that don’t seem to match up, and of choices you’d think no one would actually make.
When I was twelve years old, I lived by myself for a while. This was the mid-1970s in San Francisco, so the rules were a little different then—and yet not so different that me living alone made much sense. When I describe what happened, people tend to ask, “But how did you end up so—” They dance around the word “normal,” then realize it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, “So nice?” I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy. Also, I’ve ended up something more unusual than that: autonomous.
I have a good memory but lately I’ve been looking for people who might know more, and I come up empty. Life in the 1970s led to a lot of bad luck and unexpected consequences. Perversely, I’m relieved when I learn some people I wanted to talk to are dead. But then I find one man I don’t actually want to: Peter Charming. He’s almost invisible, but I’m good at research.
He has no business licenses. He doesn’t own property in his name. The house he lived in when I knew him turns out to have belonged to somebody else, and even his 1970s phone number is assigned to a different person in old directories. I can’t find any criminal records, though those are difficult to get to the bottom of. The San Francisco Superior Court, however, provides some sheet music in a way and it’s up to me to imagine the score. There are civil lawsuits. In some, he’s the defendant and in others the plaintiff. One of them went on for seven years and struggled all the way to trial twice.
There are ways the mind pushes back against knowing too much. You research too long. You obsess over irrelevant details. Your memories tend to come in snapshots without context. You amaze the world by how unfazed, how nice you seem. You discount cruelties as if they’re anecdotes best brought out in a barroom competition. You also tend to say “you” when you mean “I.”
When I was a kid, Peter was bad to my mom. She managed to escape eventually, but at a cost. 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 me forward, then backward, then apart. My mother is much more important, but when I think of looking directly at her I reflexively retreat into research. I would rather look into Peter’s life again.
People leave San Francisco but something always gets left behind. Usually it’s gossip. I’ve mentioned his name to people who were in that social circle and it’s like he never existed. I’m sure they met him and I don’t think they’re lying when they say they don’t remember. He was of a time and a place that are gone. It’s like asking about a statue in a park now the site of a high rise. What happened to that old bronze bust? Didn’t you see it?
His picture is in the society column of the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1960s, and he looks young. He hasn’t learned arrogance yet. Instead, he looks just shy of self-confident, asking the camera to confirm it sees him as handsome. He’s an escort for women who are older. They have their own money, and my hunch is that when they stopped seeing Peter, they still had all of it, minus what they’d given him knowingly. That was before the 1970s, the time that was made for him.
One person reacted to his name, once. At a party sometime in the 1980s, I met a novelist whom I knew by reputation—a happy bullshit artist in the way of those Beats who made careers and academic posts by riding out the ambiguity of whether they’d actually had Kerouac sleep on their couch.
I was twenty-two and the novelist was in his sixties. He was talking to a beautiful woman who held her drink with both hands and who regarded him with suspicion, like he was about to offer her candy. As I was walking by, he brought me into the conversation, which I recognized as a gambit to make her reduce her grip on her glass to one hand, to let the other settle to her hip.
“Excuse me,” he said to me. “You look part English.”
“Is the other part—Jewish? I ask that as a full Jew myself.”
“I’ve often thought the combination of English and Ashkenazi makes the most handsome man in the room. Don’t you think so?” he asked the girl, who was noncommittal. “This fine woman,” he said a moment later, “still hasn’t decided to leave her husband for me, but I can’t blame her.”
“The question is whether she’s going to expand her horizons or let them stay as they are,” I said.
He started to say something he’d prepared but faltered. The conversation continued the way he was driving it as before, but his interest in her—obligatory as it already was—was complicated by this: I wasn’t a chump. I’d been moderately funny but I hadn’t tried to compete. I was staying in the conversation to make him look good. That’s a set of skills that develops in unusual circumstances. After the woman left for better prospects, he wanted to know about me.
“How did you come to San Francisco?” he asked.
“My mother met a man at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.”
When that was all I said, he laughed. “What is it about the Mark Hopkins?”
“She met a man who said he wanted to buy her a balloon and take her to Paris.”
I have to stop short my writer’s memory, the desire to underline. I can’t claim that he froze his wrist just as the drink was about to meet his lips. “I think I knew that man,” he said.
“You knew Peter Charming?”
When he spoke again, it was with caution. “Do you know where he is, still? Are you friends with his people?”
“No, not anymore.”
It was unnerving to see a man like the novelist, whose identity pivoted on tall tales, sweep my eyes with conviction to see if I was telling the truth. How would he know if I was sincere? He asked my mother’s name, I told him, he squinted—vaguely, he thought he remembered her, but he wasn’t sure.
“Is your mother all right?”
I’m never sure what to say when people have to say that about her.
Finally, he said, “Charming was doing terrible things.”
“You knew?” He looked alarmed. It was as if I were aware of atrocities but had done nothing.
No, maybe not, I realized.
“It was the seventies,” he said, “and some of us fell victim to improving ourselves in ways that turned out silly. It was a silly decade. People took advantage of that. Charming was bad. I heard bad things.”
I’d seen some things but no, I hadn’t seen that. I wanted the conversation to last longer, but another woman walked by, as pretty as the last, and in mid-sentence the novelist waved her down, introducing us. He told her I was his son.
As I shook hands with her, he made up a biography for me, the spawn of his second marriage, I was out from Cleveland, I was on the crew team at my college, didn’t I look just like him? As he spun the story I went along with it. He said my mother, his ex-wife, was English, and he felt that the combination of English and Ashkenazi Jew was the most handsome on earth. Hadn’t he done right by me? Wasn’t I a wonder?
Later, I phoned my mother to tell her much of this conversation. I treated our talks back then like trips down hallways with certain rooms under lock and key, but I didn’t think about why I was so careful. I told her about the novelist introducing me as his son, which she found delightful. I didn’t say he’d asked if she was okay, or that I’d said she wasn’t.
“What did he say about Peter?” she asked.
“He said Peter was involved in white slavery?” I rarely speak with that uptick. But I was asking a question as subtly as I knew how, not very subtly at all. What exactly were Peter’s limits?
She answered in a way that I would have said I felt nothing about. “Oh, Peter. You know, it was so hard to stay mad at him. He was like a big kid.”
And there it was, that statement I felt nothing about, remembered for decades when I have long forgotten the details of birthdays and first kisses. How did I really feel? I felt a dry, hot, constricting tension that I did not allow dominion over me. I felt like I wanted the conversation to be over so I could tell people about it and read from their faces how I should feel too. Might it be disturbing that my mother had suggested human trafficking was forgivable, if not childlike? I’m not asking that rhetorically; I’m looking for confirmation. I look to you, you nod, I nod back.
“How do you feel, Glen, about a man you knew well perhaps being the worst sort of human being?”
With pride in my voice at my own detachment, I would say, “Nothing,” and upon your suggestion—probably unspoken, probably just a puzzled squint that I’m trained to look for—that someone more fully aware might feel something, I would think, “No, I’m too strong for that. Nothing can touch me.”
That reaction is what this story is about. For much of my life there has been a circuitous pathway between when something happens and when I react. This gives the illusion of stillness, when in fact it’s about trying to accommodate too much at once. I do not have feelings so much as I gauge what a loved one would want me to feel, and then I tell myself about that.
Perhaps that’s familiar to you. Have you ever used a key on the lock of an old mountain cabin, felt it stick, and tried to imagine its teeth engaging tumblers? Have you tried making friends with its unknowable history, coaxing it into unfreezing, and have you promised you will not give in to a burst of anger that could snap it in half? Then you know what it is like to be my mother’s son. It’s exhausting and it’s where art forms are born. I think Baroque draftsmen who made etchings of labyrinths were men raised by shattered women.
Peter Charming is a part of the story, but really, I’m looking for my mother, or what remains of her. There is not going to be redemption here; nor am I going to indict her as a monster. There is another way to go for those of us who can no longer love our mothers. I have learned compassion for her, what an old friend calls “compassion from a distance.” My mother’s life has been a tragedy but mine has not. And let’s be honest here. My mother isn’t the story, either.
I’d like to tell you about myself, which makes me want to apologize, the way my needing anything always does. I place a high value on autonomy. When I was so young that my memories were hardly even meant to be permanent, three or four years old, my parents and I were watching television. I saw actors talking to camera. It impressed my parents. They said there was something sophisticated in admitting that the scene had an audience. So, while I was hammering the flippers of my pinball machine, or sinking shampoo bottles in the bathtub as if they were my great-grandfather’s U-boat, I began talking to camera myself. I knew it wasn’t real, but it was also as vivid as the adventures I gave my stuffed kangaroo.
When I was alone in a room, I was never alone, for there was an audience I was meant to entertain, and after I was put to bed, time and again my mother or father had to come into the room to tell me to be quiet, because I was still telling the events of the day to my invisible confederates, whom I loved for giving me a purpose.
There was a rule I hewed to like it was superstition. In bed, lights out, I only had to talk until I’d described my day well enough that it felt true. There was a comforting assurance that if I told the story right, I could finally go to sleep. This feeling has never left me. Now, I tell myself that if what I say here is true, I will be complete and that is what I’m looking for, too.
Excerpted from "I Will Be Complete"
Copyright © 2019 Glen David Gold.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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