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Gonville

Gonville

A Memoir

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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.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 272 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439101278 | 
  • March 2010
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Hear more about Peter Birkenhead's memoir of his father, GONVILLE

Gonville is the story of a son coming to terms with his alternately charismatic, mortifying, thoughtful, violent, generous, and cruel father.

Read an Excerpt

1

Okay, I’m flying. I’m three years old and I can fly. Who knew?

But I’m always full of surprises and today’s is that I’m flying. Not in an airplane, but like Superman, with my arms stretched out in front of me and the wind in my face. There’s a lot of turbulence, but I’m not flying through the sky. I’m setting what must be the indoor air-speed record, flying down a long stairwell without touching the stairs. The turns are very tight, really scary, and as I approach each one, I sense that I’m flying too fast, and that I’m going to crash into the wall. I don’t... see more

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