This Boy’s Life: a Memoir by Tobias Wolff

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Monday, Mar 9, 2009

This memoir would be overwhelmingly sad for me, had I not already read Old School by the same author and know that he becomes a successful author and teacher of literature at Stanford. But if you didn’t know that this child redeems himself in the end, this would be sad, a sad tale indeed.

Tobias’ parents divorced when he was a young boy, and his mother set off looking for a better life, leaving her oldest son with her ex-husband. In 1955 it was hard for a single mother, and life treated Tobias’ mother no better than the next. When the hard-scrabble life started to wear her down, she married a man who turned out to be selfish, mean, manipulative and vindictive.

While the challenges of the everyday events in Tobias’ life make for compelling reading, his honesty about his reactions to those events are what make the book worthy of the Pen Faulkner Award. He falls in with the unruly kids and makes terrible choices. But at the same time there is a bizarre innocence about him that simultaneously disappoints and endears. For instance, after scratching an unmentionable phrase on a bathroom wall, in his fervor to convince others of his innocence, he manages to convince himself as well.

Insight into the lies he told and why he told them is, for me, the most fascinating aspect of This Boy’s Life. At the same time you want to strangle him for his deceits, his lies are what ultimately save him. He completely fabricates an application to a private boarding school, where he goes on full scholarship; despite the fact that he is a very poor student with nothing to recommend him. He is eventually expelled for poor grades, but while there he engages with a teacher or two who recognize that he is not lazy or stupid, but too far behind academically to keep up.

As the novel comes to a close, Wolff is headed off to war. Yet instead of ending there, the story flashes back to a time when he was, if not happy, at least hopeful.

Readers who enjoyed Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ will appreciate Wolff’s family portrait.

Written by Helen H.

Fun fact: I adore furry faces.