The first page of Glen David Gold’s new memoir consists of a simple and surprising caveat: “My mother assures me none of this happened.” The reader spends the rest of I Will Be Complete discovering just how illuminating this opening statement is. This riveting, sneakily emotional book—if it is to be accepted at page-value, and I believe that it is—is a brutally honest account of Gold’s upbringing at the hands of a troubled, unreliable mother and a distant, disinterested father. Their marriage disintegrated when Glen was at an early age and his father’s fortunes evaporated.

In a sense, Gold could have called his book How I Learned to Stop Loving My Mother in 480 Pages. You almost never hear someone make the types of confessions Gold does—but then again, you didn’t have the mother he had. She’s a fascinating and at times loveable character, but one whose existence is slippery and almost devoid of any sort of accountability. After the divorce, she brought Glen to San Francisco and embedded the boy in a ’70s scene of free love, drugs, and con men. When he was 12, she got on a plane to New York and left him to fend for himself. That his story is not one of a young wastrel making his way on the mean streets, dipping in and out of addiction and petty crime, says something about his character. That his mother found herself a surrogate in the form of a boyfriend close to her son’s age—who was a violent criminal and addict—says something about hers.

Gold’s story is a uniquely awful one, but the experience of reading I Will Be Complete is anything but. The book unfolds like a novel—Gold’s previous two books, Sunnyside and the exceptional Carter Beats the Devil, are historical fiction based on real-life figures—and his first-person narrative is wry, funny, and refreshingly objective. We eventually learn why Gold chooses to describe his life so dispassionately, and his frankness is a much better alternative to the sort of goopy, overwrought confessional a book like this could have easily become.

And while much of I Will Be Complete focuses on Gold’s relationship with a reckless parent, the meat of the book is his recounting of formative romantic relationships, which challenge him to push against his emotional limitations. Gold grips the reader with specificity of detail—an ecstasy trip with a girlfriend while listening to REM feels achingly real—and finds universal truths hidden in a singularly terrible coming of age.