When I began reading this, I was expecting a biography, although a closer inspection of the subtitle, “A memoir,” should have clued me in that Silverstein and Me was not a typical biography. And how could it be? Marv Gold tells us “he was an outsider and a loner.” Silverstein only did two interviews in his lifetime, both to the same university magazine, one of which is included in its entirety in the memoir. Writing an “accurate” biography of someone completely open is complex as it is, but given the “recluse” status that Silverstein earned while he was alive would make writing his life story utterly impossible. But Gold does a fantastic job of evoking Silverstein through his anecdotes, and we are able to get to know the famous author through Gold’s words as well as anyone probably could have.
While Silverstein was best known for his children’s story The Giving Tree or his collections of poetry, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, he was also a cartoonist for Playboy magazine for almost fifty years, wrote several plays and movies, and was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame for his songwriting. In fact, it is to Silverstein’s singing that we are first introduced in the memoir. Gold starts off with an atypical, unbelievable story: he hears his friend’s voice singing to him after Gold learns of Silverstein’s death. Gold even cites talking to his wacky character of a psychiatrist about it, who suggests he sing back to Silverstein. This crops back in randomly throughout the book, acting as landmarks, grounding us in the fact that this version of Silverstein’s life is simply that: a friend remembering the life of a friend, what Marv Gold saw and heard and knew of Sheldon Allan Silverstein.
The two met when they were five and six years-old, living in the same lower-middle class, Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. Gold relates several colorful all-American boy stories of their childhood: baseball, bullies, sex and girls, school, sneaking into movies. The stories are at first disconcerting; it seems as if Gold is telling stories from his own childhood and throwing in Silverstein as the awkward, tag-a-long nuisance for relevance. Gold tells us that he was basically Silverstein’s first friend, even being the one to teach him to ride a bike.
These first few chapters feel more like Gold’s memoir than Silverstein’s, but they do several things very well. First, they are extremely visual and nostalgic. It is one of the first of many moments where you feel like you actually are part of Shel Silverstein’s life. You can picture being in that neighborhood, swimming in that pool, flipping through those comics, with pesky Shel by your side. Second, you are immediately drawn in.
The entire memoir is entertaining and one of the few I’ve ever read that I could not put down. And last, while the beginning of the book lacks any deep insight into the life or mind of the famous author, the writing style evokes him from beginning to end. The words feel like Silverstein’s. The illustrations look like Silverstein’s. Gold does a fantastic job of truly making this memoir feel like Silverstein’s story while being completely honest and forthcoming about the fact that he can only tell us what he knows.
Gold tells us that it isn’t until late in high school that their friendship of “convenience” evolved and a “bond replaced the five-foot pole” that was between them. Even after then, however, despite the fact that they go to college together, get expelled together, go to the Playboy Mansion together, and work in the same building, Gold writes that at times there was “an abyss” between them. There are, after all, huge chunks of time that Gold can’t account for and knows nothing about. There were two years where Silverstein disappeared abroad; he has no stories about Silverstein’s time in Korea in the armed forces, and they would go months without talking in the later years of his life. Despite this somewhat on-again, off-again friendship, according to Gold, Silverstein eventually appointed him “his go between [to the media] with one proviso, ‘Tell them nothing’” And thus (and yet?!), we have this memoir.
Biographies are by definition faulted. You can never truly know someone without actually being that person, but the normally subtle problem with a biography is glaringly obvious here, especially when the subject is Shel Silverstein, a reclusive someone with the mantra, “Gotta have my space.” Gold’s constant use of the pronoun “we” rather than “he” may be unconventional, but it is a necessity. It makes the memoir more honest and accurate. The most you can hope for in the retelling of someone’s life is to get to know them as well as anyone close to them did, and Marv Gold does a brilliantly entertaining job of introducing us to Shel Silverstein.