The obsessiveness – the downright creepiness – of the collector is amusingly skewered in this memoir of rueful self-absorption. In the 1980s, long before selfies, autographs were the accepted means of stealing a celebrity’s soul and hunters seldom came more tenacious than young Adam Andrusier. A nice Jewish boy from Pinner, he first catches the scent of his habit on learning that his best friend’s neighbour is Ronnie Barker. Knocking at his door, they are answered by a lady who turns them away, though Adam spots the man himself in the hallway before the door closes: “He didn’t look famous at all.”
He has better luck when, on holiday in France, he spots Big Daddy in the hotel swimming pool; after careful stalking, he nabs his prey with paper and pen: who cares if the wrestler’s real name is Shirley Crabtree? “I’d managed to puncture a hole between our universe and the parallel one where all the celebrities lived.” From that moment, there’s no stopping him. In a way he was born to it. His father, Adrian, sold life insurance, but his passions were collecting books on the Holocaust and rare postcards of lost synagogues. He takes Adam to his first ever dealers’ fair, where a jaded old pro tells the boy that most of his present collection is “secretarial”, ie, not signed by the stars themselves. A hard lesson for the fledgling collector, but he learns from it and by the time he’s trading autographs professionally he has an eye for spotting fakes (“if the writing was too slow, if it looked flat or lifeless”).
The strange and elusive world of collecting is the engine of Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, but its mystery plot is going on elsewhere and revolves around the figure of the author’s father. A strong personality but a weak character, Adrian lives for Thursday nights with his cronies, the highlight of his year a six-day festival of Jewish folk dancing at Hatfield Polytechnic – and a nightmare of embarrassment for his long-suffering wife and children. By degrees, the seeming innocence of his gregarious other life curdles into something furtive and suspect. There’s also the puzzle of his Holocaust obsession, given it was his wife’s grandparents who perished in the camps, while Adrian’s family had been safe in England during the war, “avoiding conscription”. Gradually, the antagonism between father and son becomes unignorable, a conflict based not on faith – Adrian is no devout observer and Adam no Edmund Gosse – but on the marshier ground of truthfulness. The discovery of an incriminating letter in his father’s briefcase smoulders away for pages.
Of course Adam is smart enough to realise he is, in part, a chip off the old block. Just as his father is ruled by obsession – always intruding with his camera, always ready with an old joke – Adam pursues his career in autographs with a singleminded intensity, travelling to fairs around the world, glued to his dealers’ lists and catalogues. The suspicion that he might have “a bit missing” occasionally surfaces, like the moment he hears that Salman Rushdie, then under the fatwa, is to do a signing at Waterstones: “It crossed my mind that a signed copy of The Satanic Verses might be worth some real money, especially if someone managed to take Rushdie out.” There’s compassion for you! Almost from the corner of our eye we see his “normal” life going on. He not only has a girlfriend, but he turns out to be a pianist worthy of a place at King’s College, Cambridge. His love of jazz and its mavericks (Miles Davis, Bill Evans) prompts some of his best writing. But overshadowing even the happy times is a volatile temperament. The thin partitions dividing talent from mania begin to wobble when he gives a public recital of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in the college chapel and all the dread and resentment brewing inside him burst out mid-performance: he stares at his hands “playing the piece, all by themselves. I wasn’t doing anything except observing. It was an astonishing sight.” A spectacular unRavel-ing follows.
The final reckoning with his father occurs in a chapter titled, with no small irony, “Hitler”. Having circled a signed volume of Mein Kampf for sale, Adam at last breaks the taboo and buys it, recognising the purchase partly as an act of aggression. He knows his father – and everyone else – will be appalled, the idea of his owning it horrible yet “electrifying”. It takes a conversation with his therapist to make him realise what’s going on. As his girlfriend puts it, more succinctly: “If you want to upset your dad, why don’t you just buy a German car?”
I wonder if the book is settling another score. On its cover, Zadie Smith provides a puff (“a comic and poignant memoir”), which was perhaps exacted by the author as the price for her using his story in her 2002 novel The Autograph Man. Was his permission sought back then or did Smith simply do what most writers would and appropriate it? Either way, Adam Andrusier has put his own spin on this chronicle of filial dysfunction and compulsive collecting. I wonder if I can get my copy signed?
• Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier is published by Hodder Headline (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply