Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: This Boy's Life

I've had this memoir by Tobias Wolff on my TBR list forever. I saw the movie years ago and always meant to read the book, but I just never got around to it. I'm so glad I finally did. I love memoirs, especially ones that read like this— poetic but not sentimental, filled with insights but not didactic. It's really exactly what the title promises: one boy's life.

As the book opens Toby Wolff, soon to become Jack, and his mother are running away from an abusive man. She's divorced from Toby's father, who lives on the East Coast with his older brother. Toby and his mother clearly adore each other, but he can't seem to be "good," in spite of his desire to please his mother. Toby gravitates toward the wrong crowd and finds himself doing all the things he knows he should do: fighting, vandalizing, lying, cheating. Eventually his mom remarries, and they move to a desolate town in Washington. Dwight, the stepfather, is a controlling dictator who is often proud of Toby for his transgressions, yet punishes him severely. Much of the tension in the book is between Toby and himself and Toby and Dwight, his stepfather.

Toby isn't a run-of-the-mill bad boy. He's smart about things. He carefully erases his report cards to show excellent grades, makes excuses that somehow seem legitimate, and even forges recommendations so that he can get into a prep school. In his heart he truly believes that he's a good kid, a smart kid, one destined for a better life as soon as he gets out of his podunk town. But he just can't stop making bad decisions.

I read in an interview with Wolff in The Paris Review that "Though a private man, Wolff is open about his nagging suspicion that his good fortune in life—his arrival at the age of fifty-eight with his family intact, a home in a warm climate, a place to write and teach, even a dog—is a fabrication that could burn to the ground at any moment." That makes perfect sense after reading this memoir. A good, stable life seems always just out of reach to the boy Toby, and yet he knows that he is somehow made for that life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wolff's boyhood story and plan to add the memoir of his tour of Vietnam to my TBR list.

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