cover image Gonville: A Memoir

Gonville: A Memoir

Peter Birkenhead. Free Press, $25 (256pp) ISBN 978-1-4165-9883-1

A fraught and funny father-son memoir tells the terrible tale of growing up in the late 1960s and ’70s with a gun-packing Brooklyn leftie of violent temperament. Birkenhead, an actor and journalist, was the eldest of four kids born to a Brooklyn College economics professor and his pianist-composer wife. Birkenhead’s dad was a vociferous, Jewish political hothead who kept a collection of Martini-Henry guns and was prone to sudden fits of rage that were usually turned on his family in the form of punching and verbal abuse. While his mother and two younger brothers received the brunt of it, the author learned early on to deflect the anger by “conflict-defusing, Dad-distracting skills.” Acting in small parts in his father’s summer stock theater in Hyannis, Mass. (the book is named for the father’s favorite character, Gonville Bromhead, from the film Zulu , about a British lieutenant fighting in South Africa), allowed the author a happy release. Birkenhead’s memoir is intensely detailed, thus the feelings magnified, and full of the blistering ambivalence of a loving son who wondered whether it would have been easier to have a dad who was “all bad instead of almost good.” (Mar.)