When Tobias Wolff was ten years old, he and his mother fled their home in Sarasota, Florida, both drawn by fantasies of a new life in a new place. In exchange for promising to attend catechism classes, Wolff persuaded his mother to call him “Jack” instead of Toby. To him, his new name evoked Jack London and implied a masculine world of adventure, guns, courage, and combat. He was eager to live a boy’s life, as suggested by the name of the scouting magazine popular during his youth. This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, winner of the 1989 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography and autobiography, describes the effect this masculine ethos had on one boy’s young life.
The book begins as Jack and his mother, Rosemary, travel to Utah after her divorce and an abusive affair with a brooding rifle expert named Roy. The story follows Jack only through high school, shortly after his expulsion from an elite boarding school that had improbably accepted him. In between, Wolff’s mother, Rosemary, marries Dwight, a cowardly bully who terrorizes his stepson with guns and fists. In Wolff’s own telling, his response to pain and confusion was to become a con artist: He stole things from stores and from Dwight; he went on destructive sprees with other boys; he admired anyone with military power, even Nazis. He lied about it all to his mother, whose own troubles apparently blinded her to the real nature of her son’s life.
Eventually, Jack’s deceitful tactics led to an opportunity that, in a novel, might have turned his life around: Aided by a faked transcript and a misled interviewer, Wolff was admitted to The Hill School and freed from the oppressive conditions and limited opportunities of his life in Dwight’s hometown of Chinook, Washington. His past, however, had not readied him for preparatory school, and though he made it to his senior year, he was asked to leave before graduation—a consequence, he implies, of his “wildman” behavior.
Eventually Wolff was to become a soldier in Vietnam, an accomplished writer, a college teacher—a good citizen. His books include two collections of short stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981) and Back in the World (1985), and a novella, The Barracks Thief (1984). Some of the events described in This Boy’s Life, harsh though most of them are, led in mysterious ways to the man he has become. His focus in the book, however, is not at all on that man, but on the boy of the title, and it is a portrait drawn in pain. Wolff writes about his adolescence with a stark unsentimentality that nevertheless allows one to empathize with young Jack. He does many things that are wrong, and few that are noble, but he lives under the pressure of low self-esteem and an outer world seemingly conspiring to bring him further down.
If Wolff’s self-portrait is stark, another terrible portrait stands beside it: that of his stepfather. Part of the book’s motivation, conscious or not, seems to have been the exposure of Dwight, a bullying coward whose efforts to dominate others are finally pathological. The portrait emerges through anecdotes: Dwight painting all the furniture, even the piano, white; Dwight forcing Wolff to shuck chestnuts until his hands turned yellow and stank, then leaving the chestnuts to rot in the attic; finally, Dwight attacking Rosemary in the vestibule of her Washington, D.C., apartment building after she has left him.
Dwight is a frightening fellow, to be sure, although from a distance he is more pathetic than menacing. To Wolff, he was not only a personal oppressor but also the living evidence of his mother’s weakness and poor judgment. Nevertheless, Rosemary Wolff is portrayed sympathetically; Wolff traces her attraction to abusive men back to her own father, a military man who spanked her every night on the theory that she had doubtless done something to deserve it. Wolff seems willing to forgive his mother everything. At one time his mother’s brother offers to adopt him, and take him away from Chinook to live with his family in Paris. In a moving passage, Wolff records his sense of connectedness to his mother, and his sense that, although he could imagine living apart from her, he could never allow himself to be adopted and formally stop being her son.
Implicit in This Boy’s Life is Wolff’s unhappiness over his separation not only from his father, remarried to a Connecticut heiress, but from his older brother Geoffrey, whom he did not see for a period of six years. Aspects of the Wolff family history have also been explored in Geoffrey’s memoir, The Duke of Deception (1979), which, like This Boy’s Life, reveals much about the growing boy while focusing on the wayward father. Although the brothers lived apart (and had little contact) during most of the period covered by both books, traits which are attributed to their father seem almost preternaturally to have surfaced in...