Some five years ago, my wife, on a whim, bought This Boy’s Life (1989; PEN/Faulkner winner). I thought it looked interesting (and I’d seen previews for and clips from the film version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro), but I never bothered to pick it up. My wife then completely forgot that she was the one who bought it with the intention of reading it. Last year I finally entered the work of Tobias Wolff with his exceptional novel Old School. I was surprised at how good that novel was because Wolff (if he is known — and more people should read him) is better known for his short stories and this memoir. So I finally pulled This Boy’s Life off the shelf. I will make sure my wife reads it soon because this is, again, exceptional.
After reading Old School and knowing that it is in part inspired by Wolff’s own adolescence at an exclusive private boys’ school (The Hill), I was taken completely off-guard when he presents himself as a young delinquent child of a poor single-mother. How does this boy who rolls cars down hills, smashing them into other cars, who doesn’t do his homework and cheats on his tests, whose wealth is gained by robbing his paper route patrons, and whose wealth is lost in a carnival game binge become a Hill School boy who grows up to be the award-winning author of such disciplined prose?
But even without that mystifying angle — which is certainly a real angle to the story (indeed, it is the angle that helps this memoir transcendant) — the young Wolff’s life is heartbreaking and captivating. The book begins on the road. Wolff, who at this point in his life would prefer to be called “Jack” instead of “Toby” (because he knew a girl named Toby), and his mother Caroline are fleeing an abusive relationship in Florida. “Jack’s” father and mother are divorced — he lives, they think quite comfortably, in Connecticut with the older son (Geoffrey Wolff — an acclaimed writer himself, and who wrote his own memoir about living with the father: The Duke of Deception). The two sides of the split family have little contact. After Florida, Caroline hopes to settle in Utah where she wants to take advantage of the uranium mining opportunities in the 1950s. When they see that Moab is over-populated by others with the same goal, they continue on to Salt Lake City. The fact that no one has found any uranium in Salt Lake City just means there’ll be more for them when it is found. When the boyfriend they left behind in Florida finds them, but not before he settles in with them again, mother and son eventually flee again, this time to maybe Phoenix . . . or Seattle — Seattle it is.
In this first part of the story Wolff gives a penetrating portrait of his relationship to his damaged mother. She loves him tremendously and with no small amount of guilt, though she recognizes that it is an asset to him if he is tough. He tentatively takes advantage of her love and guilt from time to time (the book opens just before a truck crashes down a canyon; seeing his mother’s grief and worry that he witnessed such a tragedy, Jack gets her to buy him some souvenirs, which he knows she cannot afford). Caroline actually grew up quite wealthy, and she misses that lifestyle somewhat. But all is lost now. Worse, she was emotionally beaten down by her own father, and we see how much she does not want to do the same to her young son. He has her trust and her loose discipline. Though he sees himself as becoming a better person, at this time in his life he can hardly stop himself from exploiting her softness. Though the book doesn’t explore this too much, there might even be a punitive motive to how Wolff acts out; he’s aware of what he doesn’t have.
To many who freely give their opinion, Jack needs a father. Caroline, obviously, has bad luck with men, and she doesn’t really want to get into a relationship again. But for her son, she does her best. Here is a poignant scene of intimacy between mother and son after a failed date with a charming man who has promised to buy Jack a Raleigh bicycle:
I slept badly that night. I always did when my mother went out, which wasn’t often these days. She came back late. I listened to her walk up the stairs and down the hall to our room. The door opened and closed. She stood just inside for a moment, then crossed the room and sat down on her bed. She was crying softly. “Mom?” I said. When she didn’t answer I got up and went over to her. “What’s wrong, Mom?” She looked at me, tried to say something, shook her head. I sat beside her and put my arms around her. She was gasping as if someone had held her underwater.
I rocked her and murmured to her. I was practiced at this and happy doing it, not because she was unhappy but because she needed me, and to be needed made me feel capable. Soothing her soothed me.
She exhausted herself, and I helped her into bed. She became giddy then, laughing and making fun of herself, but she didn’t let go of my hand until she fell asleep.
In the morning we were shy with each other. I somehow managed not to ask her my question. That night I continued to master myself, but my self-mastery seemed like an act; I knew I was too weak to keep it up.
My mother was reading.
“Mom?” I said.
She looked up.
“What about the Raleigh?”
She went back to her book without answering. I did not ask again.
Among her several suitors after they arrive in Seattle is the very persistent Dwight. Each weekend, he drives from his home in Chinook, a few hours away, to see her. Tobias’s actions in school and in the street are increasingly cause for alarm. Worse are the things she doesn’t know about; for example, when home alone he points a loaded rifle at pedestrians outside. Dwight sees the mother’s concern as leverage to get her to marry him:
Dwight drove down that weekend. They spent a lot of time together, and finally my mother told me that Dwight was urging a proposal which she felt bound to consider. He proposed that after Christmas I move up to Chinook and live with him and go to school there. If things worked out, if I made a real effort and got along with him and his kids, she would quit her job and accept his offer of marriage.
She did not try to make any of this sound like great news. Instead she spoke as if she saw in this plan a duty which she would be selfish not to acknowledge. But first she wanted my approval. I thought I had no choice, so I gave it.
It’s terrible to see what is happening here. Nevertheless, the young Tobias moves out of his mother’s house to live with a new family in Chinook. Not wanting to hurt his mother, and still unaware that there is any choice, he never tells her just how horrible a person Dwight is.
My mother told me she could still change her mind. She could keep her job and find another place to live. I understood, didn’t I, that it wasn’t too late? / I said I did, but I didn’t. I had come to feel that all of this was fated, that I was bound to accept as my home a place I didn’t not feel at home in, and to take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it. I did not believe my mother when she told me it wasn’t too late. I knew she meant what she said, but it seemed to me that she was deceiving herself. Things had gone too far. And somehow it was her telling me it wasn’t too late that made me believe, past all doubt, that it was. Those words still sound to me less like a hope than an epitaph, the last lie we tell before hurling ourselves over the brink.
Needless to say, the marriage takes place. But this is still the beginning of the book. And, without giving much away, as looming a character as Dwight is, his relationship with Tobias is still secondary. This is a story about growing up into an identity you’ve always imagined as yours but that seems completely unlikely. It is highlighted with sometimes fun and sometimes terrible images and perspectives of youth. I can’t recommend it enough.