Title: This Boy’s Life
Author: Tobias Wolff
Release date: 1989
Publisher: Grove Press
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Toby Wolff is used to running–driving from Florida to Utah to Seattle to escape his mother’s boyfriend; moving to Concrete, WA, with his stepfather; dreaming of high school in Paris, France. But when he stops to face himself, he finds only scattered shadows of an identity.
Tobias Wolff uses imagery, symbolism, and place to great effect to tell the story of his turbulent boyhood. As a young boy growing up in the fifties, Toby yearns for a stable life and a happy family, and when he doesn’t find it, he sets out on a self-destructive path. Struggling with how to be a man—or how to be a boy—is a central theme in the book.
I love when place is a crucial part of a story, and for Wolff, geography is intricately related to identity. As he moves from Florida to Utah to Seattle to Concrete, WA (and contemplates Paris and the East Coast), his vision of himself changes. Each move is an opportunity to reinvent himself, to try on a new version of who he might be. Yet for all of his reimaginings and reinventions, Wolff remains the same person at his core: insecure and in search of acceptance (particularly from his male peers and father figures).
Each chapter is a story on its own, but they all contribute to the main arc of the book: Wolff’s journey to himself. Despite the somewhat disjointed nature of the anecdotes, which can feel strung together, Wolff manages to keep a tension about who he will become. Observations like “Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me” are a common refrain throughout the book.
He uses vivid images of his external environment to reflect his inner turmoil. At the beginning of the book, he sets the stage for the journey he and his mother embark upon, and the cycles of tension and relief that will follow them:
We left Sarasota in the dead of summer, right after my tenth birthday, and headed West under low flickering skies that turned black and exploded and cleared just long enough to leave the air gauzy with steam. (page 4)
The salmon his stepfather shows him in Seattle are symbolic of the slow emotional death Toby felt with the man:
They had come all the way from the ocean to spawn here, Dwight said, and then they would die. They were already dying. The change from salt to fresh water had turned their flesh rotten. Long strips of it hung off their bodies, waving in the current. (page 75)
Throughout his misadventures, Toby oscillates between feelings of overwhelming guilt and carefree indifference. His description of wanting to confess to a priest, but not understanding what he felt guilty for, resonated deeply with me:
I thought about what I wanted to confess, but I could not break my sense of being at fault down to its components. Trying to get a particular sin out of it felt like fishing a swamp, where you feel the tug of something that at first seems promising and then resistant and finally hopeless as you realize that you’ve snagged the bottom, that you have the whole planet on the other end of your line. (page 17)
This is an original and poetic way to describe how Toby feels the weight of the world—the whole planet—on his shoulders. He feels responsible for his mother’s happiness, but he is without a male role model who might show him the way. The closest he gets to a healthy male father figure are the priest to whom he was confessing, and Mr. Howard at the end of the book—who sets Toby on the bumpy path of manhood.
Until then, Toby feels disconnected from who he thinks he should be and the actions he takes. This is on display in the chapter when he steals the family car and it breaks down:
My footsteps were loud on the roadway. I heard them as if they came from somebody else. The movement of my legs began to feel foreign to me, and then the rest of my body, foreign and unconvincing, as if I were only pretending to be someone. I watched this body clomp along. I was outside it, watching it without belief. Its imitation of purpose seemed absurd and frightening. I did not know what it was, or what was watching it so anxiously, from so far away. (page 175)
He also offer excellent descriptions of other people and places, with an astonishing ability to recall detail—as when he describes the home of the man seducing his mother. Wolff easily encapsulates what a person is like—even as he struggles to define himself. This description of a fellow boarder in Seattle is one of my favorites for its simplicity and insight:
Kathy was young and plain and shy. She stayed in her room most of the time. When people addresses her she would look at them with a drowning expression, then softly ask them to repeat what they had said. (page 38)
Indeed, Wolff offers insight and wisdom throughout the book. It is an account of an irrepressible young boy, to be sure, but it is also the story of an older man looking back on his experiences and tracing the thread of his identity. Some of my favorite observations include:
• “Power can be enjoyed only when it is recognized and feared.” (page 25)
• “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.” (page 89)
• “Whatever it is that makes closeness possible between people also puts them in the way of hard feelings if that closeness ends.” (page 217)
Ultimately, Wolff does begin to discover who he is, but the road is not easy. Is it ever?