Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

This Boy’s Life

A Memoir

by Tobias Wolff

“Wolff writes in language that is lyrical without embellishment, defines his characters with exact strokes and perfectly pitched voices, [and] creates suspense around ordinary events, locating the deep mystery within them.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date March 19, 2000
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3668-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date December 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9860-0
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

This unforgettable memoir of boyhood in the 1950s, a true modern classic, introduces us to the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move. As he fights for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, his experiences are at once poignant and comical, and Wolff masterfully re-creates the frustrations, cruelties, and joys of adolescence. His various schemes–running away to Alaska, forging checks, and stealing cars–lead eventually to an act of outrageous self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility.

Tobias Wolff discusses J. D. Salinger on The Colbert Report

Praise

“Unforgettable.” –Time

“A work of genuine literary art . . . as grim and eerie as Great Expectations, as surreal and cruel as The Painted Bird, as comic and transcendent as Huckleberry Finn.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

‘so absolutely clear and hypnotic . . . that a reader wants to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully.” –The New York Times

“[This] extraordinary memoir is so beautifully written that we not only root for the kid Wolff remembers, but we also are moved by the universality of his experience.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Wolff writes in language that is lyrical without embellishment, defines his characters with exact strokes and perfectly pitched voices, [and] creates suspense around ordinary events, locating the deep mystery within them.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Wolff’s genius is in his fine storytelling. This Boy’s Life reads and entertains as easily as a novel. Wolff’s writing and timing are superb, as are his depictions of those of us who endured the “50s.” –The Oregonian

Awards

Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Excerpt

Fortune___

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff’s edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.

For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn’t help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.

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. We were going to change our luck.
We’d left Sarasota in the dead of summer, right after my tenth birthday, and headed West under low flickering skies that turned black and exploded and cleared just long enough to leave the air gauzy with steam. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick, strangled tongues. Idlers with rotten teeth surrounded the car to press peanuts on the pretty Yankee lady and her little boy, arguing among themselves about shortcuts. Women looked up from their flower beds as we drove past, or watched us from their porches, sometimes impassively, sometimes giving us a nod and a flutter of their fans.
Every couple of hours the Nash Rambler boiled over. My mother kept digging into her little grubstake but no mechanic could fix it. All we could do was wait for it to cool, then drive on until it boiled over again. (My mother came to hate this machine so much that not long after we got to Utah she gave it away to a woman she met in a cafeteria.) At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. But none of this bothered me. I was caught up in my mother’s freedom, her delight in her freedom, her dream of transformation.
Everything was going to change when we got out West. My mother had been a girl in Beverly Hills, and the life we saw ahead of us was conjured from her memories of California in the days before the Crash. Her father, Daddy as she called him, had been a navy officer and a paper millionaire. They’d lived in a big house with a turret. Just before Daddy lost all his money and all his shanty-Irish relatives’ money and got himself transferred overseas, my mother was one of four girls chosen to ride on the Beverly Hills float in the Tournament of Roses. The float’s theme was “The End of the Rainbow” and it won that year’s prize by acclamation. She met Jackie Coogan. She had her picture taken with Harold Lloyd and Marion Davies, whose movie The Sailor Man was filmed on Daddy’s ship. When Daddy was at sea she and her mother lived a dream life in which, for days at a time, they played the part of sisters.
And the cars my mother told me about as we waited for the Rambler to cool–I should have seen the cars! Daddy drove a Franklin touring car. She’d been courted by a boy who had his own Chrysler convertible with a musical horn. And of course there was the Hernandez family, neighbors who’d moved up from Mexico after finding oil under their cactus ranch. The family was large. When they were expected to appear somewhere together they drove singly in a caravan of identical Pierce-Arrows.
Something like that was supposed to happen to us. People in Utah were getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night. You didn’t need to be a mining engineer or a mineralogist. All you needed was a Geiger counter. We were on our way to the uranium fields, where my mother would get a job and keep her eyes open. Once she learned the ropes she’d start prospecting for a claim of her own.
And when she found it she planned to do some serious compensating: for the years of hard work, first as a soda jerk and then as a novice secretary, that had gotten her no farther than flat broke and sometimes not that far. For the breakup of our family five years earlier. For the misery of her long affair with a violent man. She was going to make up for lost time, and I was going to help her.

WE GOT TO Utah the day after the truck went down. We were too late–months too late. Moab and the other mining towns had been overrun. All the motels were full. The locals had rented out their bedrooms and living rooms and garages and were now offering trailer space in their front yards for a hundred dollars a week, which was what my mother could make in a month if she had a job. But there were no jobs, and people were getting ornery. There’d been murders. Prostitutes walked the streets in broad daylight, drunk and bellicose. Geiger counters cost a fortune. Everyone told us to keep going.
My mother thought things over. Finally she bought a poor man’s Geiger counter, a black light that was supposed to make uranium trace glow, and we started for Salt Lake City. She figured there must be ore somewhere around there. The fact that nobody else had found any meant that we would have the place pretty much to ourselves. To tide us over she planned to take a job with the Kennecott Mining Company, whose personnel officer had responded to a letter of inquiry she’d sent from Florida some time back. He had warned her against coming, said there was no work in Salt Lake and that his own company was about to go out on strike. But his letter was so friendly! My mother just knew she’d get a job out of him. It was as good as guaranteed.
So we drove on through the desert. As we drove, we sang–Irish ballads, folk songs, big-band blues. I was hooked on ‘mood Indigo.” Again and again I worldwearily crooned “You ain’t been blue, no, no, no’ while my mother eyed the temperature gauge and babied the engine. Then my throat dried up on me and left me croaking. I was too excited anyway. Our trail was ending. Burma Shave ads and bullet-riddled mileage signs ticked past. As the numbers on those signs grew smaller we began calling them out at the top of our lungs.

Reading Group Guide

ABOUT THE BOOK

Short-story writer Tobias Wolff amazed readers with his 1989 memoir, as notable for its finely wrought prose as for the events depicted. The story introduces us to the young Toby (aka Jack) Wolff, who in the 1950s moves with his divorced mother from Florida to Utah to Washington to escape her violent boyfriend. Separated from his father and brother, Toby struggles for identity and self-respect. When his mother remarries, Wolff finds himself in a battle of wills with a hostile stepfather, a contest in which the two prove to be exceedingly stubborn. Deception and false impression are the weapons the young author-to-be learns to use to his advantage and, sometimes, disadvantage.

Though this tale of family trouble is grim, it is also humorous. Wolff’s masterful job of reexamining the frustrations and cruelties of adolescence evokes all-embracing emotions. His various schemes’running away to Alaska, forging checks, and stealing cars’lead to an act of self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.

Begin the discussion by considering the book’s epigraphs: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.””Oscar Wilde. “He who fears corruption fears life.”‘saul Alinsky. Why did the author choose these quotes? Do you think they fit the themes explored in This Boy’s Life? Describe the primary pose assumed by each character. Is there tension between these poses and those of other “corrupt” ones that surface?

2. Jack’s tongue becomes so tied at his first confession (pp. 17-22) that he finds his voice only by borrowing the sins of Sister James. Why is Jack unable to confess his real sins? The father and Sister James are satisfied, even proud of Jack, when he completes the ritual. Do you think Jack is absolved for his sins even though he lied? To the narrator, in the eyes of the church, is the act more important than the truth behind the confession?

3. Extend the idea from the last question to the act of writing a memoir: In the introduction the author attests that he tried to “tell a truthful story.” Do you think the morals and themes of the memoir remain intact even if they don’t always adhere to the facts?

4. When Rosemary asks if Dwight and Jack are getting along, Jack lies: “I said we were. He was in the living room with me, painting some chairs, but I probably would have given the same answer if I’d been alone” (p. 105). Why can’t he tell his mother about Dwight? Do you think his reluctance stems from fear? What else might make Jack protect Dwight’s early, nice-guy fa”ade? Do you think this protective behavior is positive or negative?

5. Alienation defined much of Jack’s childhood, in part because of his fractured family. Once settled in Chinook, his mother, Rosemary, attempts to re-create a “real” family. Jack writes, “But our failure was ordained, because the real family we set out to imitate does not exist in nature” (p. 112). Do you agree with this? Do you think the perfect family is a myth? What expectations does Jack have of his family?

6. The memoir is set mostly in rural Washington, high in the forested mountains.The author uses the weather common to this area as a metaphor for Dwight’s badgering: “I experienced it as more bad weather to get through, not biting, just close and dim and heavy” (p. 100). How else does the stark Northwestern landscape enter and influence the narrative? Contrast the depiction of exterior spaces with that of the white interior one in which the family lives. What does Dwight’s obsession with painting everything white, including the tree outside, suggest about his personality?

7. The residual influence of fathers plays a prominent role in the story, hinging on brief glimpses of Rosemary’s father, referred to as Daddy (pp. 59-60), and the late emergence of Jack’s biological father from back East. Compare the influence of these fathers’one violent, the other irresponsible”on their children. How do Rosemary’s and Jack’s behaviors reveal the kind of interaction they had with their fathers? Which father do you think left a more permanent “mark” on his child?

8. “But what I liked best about the Handbook was its voice, the bluff hail-fellow language by which it tried to make being a good boy seem adventurous, even romantic. The Scout spirit was traced to King Arthur’s Round Table.” (p. 103). What does this passage reveal about the imaginative space in which Jack lives? Discuss how this relates to his ability, later in the story, to invent his own persona.

9. When Jack is accused of scrawling obscene graffiti on the bathroom wall at school, we are introduced to the vice-principal and principal, men whose disciplinary approaches radically differ. Compare these two authority figures with the two father figures in Jack’s life”Rosemary’s first boyfriend, Roy, and her new husband, Dwight. Is there any correlation? About the principal, Jack writes, “He wore his weakness in a way that excited belligerence and cruelty” (p. 80). How does this relate to Jack’s concept of what a man should be (p. 14)? How is Jack’s original impression of Dwight turned upside down?

10. Pop culture references are used carefully in the text. We discover, for instance, that Jack and his friends watched The Mickey Mouse Club (p. 43), and that he and his mother watched The Untouchables (p. 178). What other pop culture references are used? To give the reader a sense of place and time, what, besides pop culture, does the author refer to? Did the story seem anchored in the 1950s or did it evince a sense of timelessness?

11. Leaving Seattle, Jack and Chuck become giddy because, as Jack puts it, “We were rubes, after all, and for a rube the whole point of a trip to the city is the moment of leaving it.” (p. 278). More frequently, an intelligent, disaffected youth runs to the city to get away. Yet Jack doesn’t dream of blending into the crowd of an urban center”his one serious plan of escape is to Alaska. Why is Jack’s sense of freedom so connected to open spaces?

12. Jack’s botched attempt to run away to Alaska (pp. 160-68) may be one of the more heart-wrenching episodes in the narrative. Why does Jack disregard the urging of his friend Arthur at the Gathering of the Tribes? Why do you think Jack is unable to carry out his plan? Discuss the conflict between Jack’s desire for freedom and his desire to belong. Compare this incident to when Jack nearly gets caught writing a bad check at the corner drugstore. How does Jack regain his composure (p. 198)?

13. After the boys get caught siphoning gasoline from the Welches, they blame it on drinking. “Mr. Bolger nodded, and I understood that this was in our favor, so great was his faith in the power of alcohol to transform a person” (p. 243). Keeping Jack’s encounters with his stepfather in mind, do you think the author’s musing was intended as ironic? Should the boys be held less accountable for their actions when drinking? What about Dwight’s actions?

14. Guns are a constant presence in Jack’s life. Trace the arc of guns throughout the memoir, beginning with Jack’s initial exposure with Roy and ending with his stealing and selling the guns at the pawnshop in Seattle. Does Jack’s attachment to guns affect his behavior? Who, if anyone, dissuades Jack from gun use? Do you think Jack displayed any transformation or development by getting rid of the stolen guns?

15. When applying to prep schools, Jack writes all of his own letters of recommendation and transcripts. He justifies this by suggesting that only he knows the truth about himself. Do you think this assertion applies to everyone? When accepted at Hill, did you consider this a turning point in Jack’s life?

16. As a young child Jack plays a game in which he is an imaginary sniper firing at people who held an “absurd and innocent belief that they were safe” (p. 25). As a teenager Jack goes to the Welches after his theft: “It had to make them feel small and alone, knowing this’that was the harm we had done. I understood some of this and felt the rest” (p. 246). Discuss the significance of these two disclosures by the author.

SUGGESTED FURTHER READING

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; An American Childhood by Annie Dillard; Black Boy by Richard Wright; Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox; Chinese Playground by Bill Lee; The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father by Geoffrey Wolff; The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr; Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater; Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy; My Losing Season by Pat Conroy;”Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim; On a Wave by Thad Ziolkowski; The Simple Truth: Poems by Philip Levine; Stop-Time by Frank Conroy; The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien; Uphill Walkers by Madeleine Blais