Because Wolff is only in his early forties and has published one short novel and two collections of short stories, some readers may judge this memoir as presumptuously premature. Nevertheless this is a beautifully direct narrative about a woman and her son struggling against great odds to find a “home” and make a good, secure life for themselves in a country where what one seems to be is valued more than what one is, and where each man with whom the mother becomes involved proves to be pathetically insecure, sadistically abusive to her and the boy, and insanely possessive. (She and Toby develop a pattern of timely escapes, even though the men she abandons somehow find her again in another town, another state.) She is portrayed as blameless.
When Wolff’s mother was a girl, her wealthy father “spanked her almost every night on the theory that she must have done something wrong that day whether he knew about it or not. He told her that he was going to spank her well in advance, as the family sat down to dinner, so she could think about it while she ate and listened to him talk about the stock market and the fool in the White House. After dessert he spanked her. Then she had to kiss him and say, ’Thank you, Daddy, for earning the delicious meal.’”
While this memoir is remarkably free of self-pity and overt vilification, and while Wolff indicates his identity as a boy and young man derived from wearing masks and forcing his face to fit them, he illustrates that those spankings his mother suffered not only shaped her and her son’s lives but reverberate in his and his children’s still.
In This Boy’s Life, Wolff offers a detailed, highly subjective portrait of himself and his family from the time that he was ten until he leaves for boarding school at fifteen. He develops a portrait of himself as someone with a passion for self-invention, beginning with his decision to change his name to “Jack,” upon his arrival in a new town with his mother, Rosemary, in 1955. However, his new name does not appease the nagging sense of unworthiness he carries with him everywhere nor his tendency to invent stories about himself. Jack’s existence is complicated by his mother’s love life. First, he is subjected to her jealous boyfriend, Roy, who appears to young Jack as a “man’s man.” Roy buys him a rifle and teaches him to shoot. The gun proves to be a dangerous temptation to the lonely young boy, who likes to aim it out the window and once shoots a squirrel. When Rosemary decides that they are going to leave Roy and travel to a new town, Jack insists on taking the rifle with him, to his mother’s displeasure. His attachment to the gun foreshadows his attraction to certain kinds of risky and even antisocial behavior, which continue once the duo move to Seattle and Rosemary embarks on another tempestuous relationship.
A few months after arriving in Seattle, Rosemary begins to date Dwight, a mechanic with three teenagers of his own, who lives three hours north in the town of Chinook. Despite her mild reservations and Jack’s strong resistance, Rosemary agrees to consider Dwight’s proposal of marriage, with an unusual condition: She wants Jack to live for several months with Dwight and his children while she continues to work in Seattle. If it looks like they can make a go of it as a family, she will agree to marry him. She is partly motivated by the desire to get Jack out of his current school, where he already has a reputation as a troublemaker. Thus begins a period of great stress for Jack, mixed in with some positive memories of time spent with Dwight’s children: pathetic Pearl, restless Skipper, and pretty Norma. Dwight takes control of Jack’s spare time, enrolling him in the Boy Scouts, securing him a paper...
(The entire section is 878 words.)