GONVILLE, By Peter Birkenhead, Free Press, 256 pp., $25.
The first movie Peter Birkenhead ever saw was "Zulu." It was his father's favorite film and, though the boy was just 5, he never forgot the way Michael Caine fought off 4,000 African warriors in a British pith helmet and buttoned-up red tunic.
Chances are, readers of "Gonville," Birkenhead's charming and horrifying memoir, also will remember the scene of that gruesome 19th century battlefield - although a pair of men's red bikini briefs will now be a disturbing part of the image. Such is the power of the incongruous in this canny story about coming-of-age in a seemingly ordinary family in Glen Cove.
Birkenhead (a familiar face on TV dramas) grew up on a domestic battlefield under the command of his wildly erratic father - a political pacifist who collected firearms, an economics professor who made his son hold his feet for naked sit-ups and a bully whose identification with that Caine character, named Gonville Bromhead, extended equally to "lectures on Dunkirk or rants about local restaurants."
In some ways, all childhoods are attempts to reconcile with the unknowable parallel universe of grown-ups. The Birkenhead house, however, yielded large quantities of confusing data for Peter and his three younger siblings. Along with idyllic scenes from what Birkenhead calls "GoodDadLand," there were the vicious fights on the other side of the bedroom wall, mother sobbing in the bathroom, brothers getting pummeled - events, he writes, that "acted as a kind of 'Clockwork Orange'-type aversion therapy thing for me when it came to alcohol, tobacco and firearms."
Birkenhead is a deft foreshadower, dropping dark little clouds over what seems to be a heartwarming scene and swinging back later to collect the thunderclaps. He is a master of the throwaway detail that later becomes the pivot into a horror movie. And he identifies feelings as if they were amusing chapter headings. His father's rifles, bayonets and helmets are on the list of "Things that Make You Go 'Help.' " A picture of his mother with a different nose is from "The Before Times."
The theater pops up in unexpected places. In the summers, Birkenhead's father managed Melody Tent, a stock company on Cape Cod. Peter's mother, Susan, despite the bruises on her hands, begins to play the piano again and composes the hit Broadway show "Jelly's Last Jam." His father quits his tenured professorship at Brooklyn College and follows Susan to become a stage manager on Broadway. During the grown-up Peter's quest to learn if he is "genetically doomed," he finds out that his father also threatened to hunt Susan down if she ever left him. (She did in 1980 and remarried.)
Birkenhead reveals other secrets, even darker ones, in a startling conclusion. At 13, he thought "how tempting it can be to believe that creativity is a reward for keeping secrets from yourself." And how satisfying that his creative rewards now extend all the way to us.