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.