If there's one thing the digital generation knows, it's that what's hyped on the package isn't always what you find inside. Jeff Goodell's memoir is subtitled "The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family," but let the rubberneck on the road of nerd culture beware -- there's far more family than Silicon Valley in these pages.
Goodell, a journalist for Rolling Stone and the author of "The Cyberthief and the Samurai," grew up under the blue skies of California suburbia. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, his brother had a drug problem and he spent a few years trying to find himself before getting his act together and settling down. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
What's both terrific and problematic about "Sunnyvale" is that Goodell writes sensitively and suspensefully enough to elevate the intimate details of his life beyond the usual yawn-inducing "Let me tell you about my crazy family" yarn. When he's on the subject of his loved ones, especially his gifted, tragic younger brother, Jerry, Goodell can break your heart. The downside to creating such an engrossing family drama is that the Silicon Valley aspect of the story rarely comes into play, and when it does it feels uncomfortably shoehorned in, like an upgrade that didn't quite take.
The book begins shortly after his parents' breakup, with Goodell's mother celebrating her marital emancipation by going to work for a little local start-up called Apple Computer. Goodell himself briefly works at the fledgling company in the early '80s, but confesses, "Apple, I thought, was just IBM with long hair, and I didn't want to be a part of it." After this inauspicious first impression, Goodell has very little interaction with Apple or, for that matter, with any of the companies that eventually transformed a sleepy California enclave into a high-tech hub. Goodell does take a fascinating field trip to visit his grandfather, an eccentric robotics engineer, and eventually receives his own sleek new Macintosh. But his embrace of the personal computer occurs while he's ensconced not on the information highway but in the halls of academia as a student at Columbia. The fact that his relationship with the Mac merits exactly four paragraphs gives you some idea of the book's priorities.
When Goodell's father, a lonely landscape contractor, confesses he feels like "a failure," his inadequacy seems to stem more from the breakup of his marriage than his lack of interest in bits and bytes. Conversely, the author's mother puts in her company time and rides her stock options all the way to a new home and new marriage, but hers could easily be any ex-housewife's triumph rather than a gear-head transformation.
As the memoir progresses, both Goodell's father and his brother slip further and further from his life and his grasp, lost to the ravages of illness and alienation. Goodell's combination of tenderness, frustration and enduring love for the two closest men in his life is devastating. He writes with the generosity and compassion of one whose family hatchets are long buried, yet with a credible amount of perspective on the foibles of himself and others.
Late in the book, he visits his sister, who has stayed on in Silicon Valley to build her own career on the Net. Entering her world, he feels as if he's "looking down into the heart of a vast electronic hive, where the honey is time ... faster chips, faster software, faster wires." Despite his expertise in writing about cyberculture, Goodell never seems to get over his squeamishness about how it intersects with his personal life. He lurches awkwardly toward every anecdote on life in the newly wired world, and at those points the story short-circuits. But for all its flaws, "Sunnyvale" succeeds more often as a family story than it fails as a chronicle of life on the digital frontier. You get the feeling that all Goodell really wanted to do was pay tribute to his dad and his brother, and when the book lets him do so, it hums along at its own sweet, sad pace.