THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff (Picador 1990, first published 1989)
I picked this book up by chance in a second-hand store in Rimini. There was a copy of Wolff’s collected short stories too but I was more drawn to this autobiography or ‘memoir’ as he prefers to call it.
The cover promises something of the mythical America I know mainly from movies. The illustration by Irish painter Kenny McKendry shows a station wagon being filled up at a remote gas station and a young male figure standing apart in a cap and dungarees. It’s like an open air version of an Edward Hopper painting.
I also liked the author’s choice of epigraphs; one by Saul Alinsky (“He who fears corruption fears life”) and the other by Oscar Wilde: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered”. Both these quotations suggest an unconventional, yet worldly wisdom and humor.
I knew nothing of the writer nor that the book had been made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and a very young Leonardo DiCaprio. If you Google the book title, you get an image of these two A-list actors in Boy Scout uniforms.
I decided not to watch any trailers or clips so as not to be distracted or influenced by someone else’s views of the story. I habitually avoid synopses and reviews for the same reason; something that’s getting harder and harder to do in the age of information overload. I like coming to things with as blank a slate as possible so I can make my own mind up.
This Boy’s Life is a slight variant on Boy’s Life, the official scout magazine. Scouting is, fortunately, only one strand of the story which takes up the formative years of Wolff’s life from 1955, when he was 10, to the time when he has to choose between university or other options, I guess in his late teens.
In keeping with the book cover, it begins on the road with Tobias and his mother travelling from Florida to Utah in an unreliable old car. Immediately, we get an adult voice recalling: “I didn’t come to Utah to be the same boy I’d been before. I had my own dreams of transformation”. How you see yourself, and how you present yourself to the world are recurring themes of the book. At another point he writes: “Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me”. Character forming experiences take precedence, only his active imagination and habit of telling bare-faced lies give any hint that his future ‘career’ will be devoted to writing.
Wolff’s father is physically absent throughout these years but this doesn’t stop him having an influence: “He had the advantage always enjoyed by an inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect”. It is partly to spite his dad that Tobias decides to change his name to Jack (after Jack London); the other reason is that a girl in his class at school is known as Toby.
One thing you quickly learn about Wolff is that he has a paranoia about being seen to be in any way effeminate. One of the biggest insults is to be called a sissy. a name he gives to a boy (Arthur) who ironically becomes a close friend. More than once I wondered if he had repressed homosexual inclinations. His smoking, raging and “general hoodlum routine” stem from a need to be seen as macho and this would also explain his fascination with guns.
He forms friendships with those who share his belief that “it is more fun to be inside than outside, to be arrogant than to be kind, to be with a crowd than to be alone”. Despite his rebellious spirit he describes himself as “fiercely conventional” and the dread of uncoolness is a constant burden.
The two adult figures that have the strongest influence over his development are his strong-willed and independently minded mother and his spiteful and mean-spirited stepfather, Dwight Hansen.
The biggest test of his resilience comes when he moves with his mother to Concrete, Washington to live with Dwight and his children. This is how this new father figure is introduced: “Dwight was a short man with curly brown hair and sad restless brown eyes. He smelled of gasoline. His legs were small for his thick-chested body, but what they lacked in length they made up for in spring ; he had an abrupt, surprisingly way of springing to his feet”.
Tobias/Jack’s mother says Dwight is a nifty dancer but there are few other good points. The way he is described makes me think that this is a movie role more suited to Danny De Vito than Robert De Niro. De Vito’s role as the bullish and bullying father in the film of Roald Dahl’s Maltilda came to mind.
The mother comes over as the most solid and affirmative figure in Wolff’s life. It is ironic that a woman should prove to be the best role model for a boy with such stereotypical notions of masculinity. That he grows to a well-rounded, though still fairly wild, young man is mainly thanks to her.
It’s no surprise that Wolff became a noted short story writer; his concise yet vivid descriptions allow the reader to ‘see’ the characters and here we also get to understand that his wisdom comes from the university of life, hard knocks and all.