Monday, March 05, 2018

Book Review: This Boy’s Life: A Memoir

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
Tobias Wolff

If you’ve been following my blog entries, you know I’ve praised Mary Karr’s memoir trilogy (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, Lit). In one of her books, Karr lists what she thinks are the best memoirs of all time. On that list was This Boy’s Life, a book I’d seen many times in used bookstores. I’ve been on a memoir kick for many years now. This book is something of a minor classic. Why not give it a try? It seemed like something I’d like and I did.

Before I say anything else, I need to mention that Tobias Wolff was born in Birmingham, but he didn’t grow up here and this book doesn’t mention our town. This didn’t have anything to do with my choosing to read the book; in fact, I didn’t know about the Birmingham connection until I happened to discover it after I was well into the book. But for those who care about such things—hey, there’s a reason to read it.

Life in the fifties and early sixties wasn’t easy for women in America, and certainly not for Tobias Wolff’s mom. At the opening of the book, she’s just split from her controlling husband, taking son Tobias in tow. The two go from town to town as mom desperately learns enough secretarial skills to keep them afloat. About a third of the way through, they are in a little town in Washington State and mom hasn’t quite discovered she’s linked up with another controlling man. Tobias has already embarked on a life of juvenile delinquency, but new father figure (not exactly dad) Dwight comes up with ways to structure Tobias’ time (paper route, Boy Scouts) so he won’t have time for such things. Famous last thoughts.

It was hard at first for me to articulate why I like this book, but part of it is the absolutely pitiless, unsentimental account Wolff gives of his reckless young life from about 11 to 17. With all of the dangerous and illegal things he does, you’re amazed he didn’t end up dead or in prison. You keep wondering when Tobias is going to pay for his actions or take a nosedive, but he doesn’t, at least not dramatically or violently. The forward momentum and the cliffhanger episodes do pay off in dramatic involvement. How did this guy end up a successful writer?

The America in the book is profoundly different from the one I grew up in. Wolff was born in 1945, and I was born in 1958, but the thirteen years between us is almost a chasm. Even the sixties parts of the book seem utterly fifties. Some of this might have to do with the very small towns in Washington where most of the book takes place. The scouts in it are strikingly different from the troop I was a part of in the seventies—more militaristic, more hellraising. Men held far more sway over women than in my day. Kids were disciplined far more. Life was much more conformist, so Wolff and mom are always feeling their differentness and alienation. And yet, paradoxically, kids went unsupervised to an astonishing degree. Things were more innocent, too. Banks left checkbooks out on counters for their patrons to use, which prompts Wolff to write bad checks (this seems to back up bad check expert Frank Abagnale’s Catch Me If You Can argument that this era positively encouraged young criminals with its overabundance of trust). Tobias takes a name and address out of a phone book, uses them to get a library card, and the librarian never questions him. When he has an accident and goes to the hospital, nurses give him as much morphine as he wants to shut him up (I’d scream too if I had the accident he had).The past, as they say, is a foreign country. They did things differently there. All of this creates a sort of Dickensian atmosphere that is somehow classically American: striking out for a new town, a new region, a new job, a new school, hoping desperately that the next place will be better, learning how to use a rifle, standing up to the old man’s blows, dodging them. Hitchhiking, getting drunk, driving up winding mountain roads. Getting frustrated with a culture of violence even though you contribute mightily to it. The very flawed and somehow sympathetic son and mother negotiate it as best and worst as they can, and you root for them. Very American, and finally a universal story that’s very satisfying.

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