Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 17, 2010

This Boy’s Life

this boy's lifeby Tobias Wolff

I suppose it’s a little backwards to read the memoir of an author who is otherwise completely unknown to you. I’ve never encountered Wolff’s short stories, which are said to be very good, or anything else he’s written. However Trever at The Mookse and the Gripes has been reading Wolff pretty regularly over the past few months, and each of his reviews have been intriguing. I found This Boy’s Life at my library and figured I would go for it.

Tobias insisted on being called ‘Jack’ for much of his childhood because a girl in school was also named Toby – and because of Jack London.

I believed that having his name would charge me with some of the strength and competence inherent in my idea of him.

This is a recurring theme in the life of a boy who believed he could be whatever he wanted to be. Traveling across the country with his single mother, in each new town he believed he would reinvent himself.

I could introduce myself as a scholar-athlete, a boy of dignity and consequence, and without any reason to doubt me people would believe I was that boy, and thus allow me to be that boy. I recognized no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others. This was an idea that died hard, if it ever really died at all.

Of course things never worked out as he envisioned, due mostly to his own tendencies toward running with bad crowds and being lazy in school. This is a book that brings to life the passion and puzzlement of youth, the crazy balance between what a kid wants from life and dreams of, and the reality that surrounds him.

Tobias’ reality was kind of tough. He had a loving mother who supported and believed in him completely, and their faith in each other got them through their wanderings from Florida to Utah to a small town in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Then a very Dickensian step-father entered the picture, and Tobias’ life spiraled into a battle for survival and self-respect. Paper routs, Boy Scouts, fist fights that began lasting friendships, joyriding, the thrill of theft, the despair of unattainable love; America in the 50s, complete with the Mickey Mouse Club and the “Lawrence Welk Show” – all this makes up the life of a sometimes tough, sometimes clever, sometimes stumbling, sometimes crumbling boy with big, if somewhat fuzzy and changeable, dreams.

Wolff presents his childhood with humor and compassion. There’s a little of the, again, Dickensian voice of the older and wiser narrator examining the passions and whims of his younger self. While Tobias spent a great deal of his youth getting himself in trouble and making trouble for those around him, he won me over because I identified with the haphazard attempt to be the person you want to be, in spite of or because of your surroundings and your own destructive/constructive tendencies. That he makes it, eventually crafting a transformation so outrageous that it catapults him into a world of new possibilities and obviously, if you look at Tobias Wolff now, becomes the person he dreamed of being, makes the story inspiring.

I’m left still highly curious though, about how this unlikely outcome was achieved by Wolff, who ends his story with a brief summary of his tumultuous years at prep school and a hint that the next event to impact him was the Vietnam War. How did he get to be an award winning, fellowship holding, professor, and author of works that have been widely translated? I think the boy who thought taking on Jack London’s name would somehow transform him, never lost belief in a world where he could be whatever he wanted to be.

When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.

Maybe he did manage to stay green. I’m planning to find out – I’ll definitely be looking for more Wolff in the future!


  1. Nice job with the back-to-back Woolf/Wolff postings, Sarah! That must have required as much careful typing as KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER (a/k/a the typo that was waiting to happen). Don’t think I’ve ever read Wolff, but I like memoirs and I know others think highly of this one (i.e. in addition to you). Sounds like a good read. Cheers!

    • I recommend it. And yes, I did spend some time back spacing – “damn, I spelled Wolff wrong AGAIN!” 🙂

  2. I suppose it’s a little backwards to read the memoir of an author who is otherwise completely unknown to you.

    Not in this case. This Boy’s Life is the best thing Wolff ever wrote. Except, possibly, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” Or “Hunters in the Snow.” Or the last page of “Bullet in the Brain.” And the Vietnam memoir comes close.

    Yeah, he’s good.

    • Good to know! I’m looking forward to reading Old School later this year, since I’m really curious about Wolff’s time in prep school and that book is somewhat based on his experiences. Then on to the Vietnam memoir I guess! 🙂

  3. […] Caton-Jones – USA – 1993 I was impressed with the faithfulness of this adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s autobiography of the same name. I was also impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio in his first starring role, much as I […]

  4. […] I have read very little of his work – in fact I’ve only read his famous memoir This Boy’s Life – and Old School could almost be the sequel. The whole time I was reading it, I struggled to […]

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