Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  

This Boy's Life

Recommended Posts

Wolff, Tobias.  This Boy’s Life.


After watching a truck plunge over a cliff, Tobias Wolff begins the story of his boyhood: ‘It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium.’ The memoir is replete with such unfulfilled promises of happiness and riches, for this boy’s life is far from happy and successful.  In fact, although ‘people in Utah were getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night,’ sleeping rough, going to poor schools, and suffering a thousand humiliations is to be the lot of Toby, self-christened Jack, after Jack London.


Jack’s major problem, however, is being terrorised by the psychopath Dwight, the ‘man my mother was afraid of.’ Already a scoundrel, given to theft, window-breaking and taking pot-shots at people in the street, Jack is obviously in need of paternal discipline. This is provided – and how! - by his mother’s latest suitor, Dwight, a divorcee with three children.  Dwight emerges as a humourless control freak.

Living with Dwight and family in Chinook, a town without a school is ‘A Whole New Deal.’   The first instalment of this is Dwight’s confiscation of Jack’s Winchester rifle; the next is finding him a paper round, and the most arduous having him shuck horse chestnuts every night, the promised remuneration from papers and nuts ending up in his guardian’s pocket.  The Winchester too now, in effect, belongs to Dwight, a boaster who can’t shoot for toffee.


Eventually, by fair means and foul, Jack manages to escape from the dreary school at Concrete by winning a scholarship to Hill, a private school, into which he is initiated by being measured for a wardrobe of uniforms.  It begins to look like an upbeat ending for the scapegrace hero, but being Jack it isn’t to be.  Conformity and a settled life are not for him.

What I liked about Jack’s story is the calm unemotional tone maintained as he and his mother constantly move from one disaster to another, from Florida to Utah to Seattle, ending up in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. My only cavil is with the ending, in my opinion just a couple of pages too long.  I’d have preferred it to end with the reunion of mother and son in Washington DC, when she takes him ‘to a piano bar full of men in Nehru jackets where she let me drink myself under the table.  She wanted me to know that I’d lasted longer than she ever thought I would.’  All Jack needs in life is his mother’s approval.  As for her, ‘she was in a mood to celebrate, having just landed a good job in a church across the street from the White House. “I’ve got a better view than Kennedy,” she told me.’

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Loved this book, but I couldn't make myself watch the movie. Robert De Niro would be too good as Dwight. "Old School" is very good, too.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this  

  • Similar Content

    • By Binker
      Last week, I attended a public lecture by Tobias Wolff and was reminded yet again about how much I enjoy him as a writer. Old School is his only novel. He has a lot of short stories and a memoir. The title of the memoir is This Boy's Life and it was made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Wolff and Robert DeNiro playing his abusive stepfather. The book was so harrowing that I knew I couldn't stand to watch the movie. But that's a different thread. Wolff is currently a professor at Stanford University near San Francisco, California.
      While this is fiction, much of it is based on Wolff's really unusual life. He grew up solidly working class in Florida and Concrete, Washington (yes, the place exists). His mother was a big reader, but no one else was and his high school English class consisted of learning to write a business letter. He had to live through the hellish experiences with his step-father. Finally, through means that are explored in his memoir, he finagled admission and a scholarship to an elite East Coast boys' prep school and suddenly found himself immersed in a life where writing and literature were revered. In his lecture last week, he said that the it was as if he had gone to a different planet.
      In the book, a working class boy attends, on scholarship, an elite East Coast boys' prep school that is obsessed with literature. It is set during one year in the 1960s. During that year, three great writers are to visit the school, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Earnest Hemingway. The boys compete to win a writing competition that is rewarded by a private audience with one of the writers. The writers don't come across very well, but it really doesn't matter. What they write and how their writing inspires the boys is what matters. A lot of the inspiration results in terribly derivative writing, which adds humor to the story. But in the end, the boys have learned a huge amount about writing and literature--and life.
      Tobias Wolff also visited my daughter's college in the Fall and the question she wanted to ask was whether his development as a writer followed the same arc of imitation of different favorite writers. She didn't get to ask the question, but answring that question was the focus of his lecture. He said that's exactly what happened. When he was a child, he loved the Albert Payson Terhune (as did I) and so he wrote a bunch of dog stories. A librarian suggested that, since he loved dogs, he should read Jack London and he did. He loved the stories so much that he wrote a bunch of wolf stories and insisted that everyone call him "Jack." Then he got into O'Henry books and so all of his stories had interesting twists at the end. Eventually, he found his own voice, but said that the period of imitating the voices of others was necessary for him to be ready to find his own voice.
      The book does have a twist that is not mirrored in Wolff's life. In the lecture, he said that that was frequently the case with fiction. You can take aspects of your personality or life and come up with consequences that never happened, but could have.
      Everyone I know who has read this book loves it. My daughter had to read it in high school (too early, I think) and again before her freshman year in college. She loved it both times and even read This Boy's Life at my urging. That will be a different thread.
  • Create New...