Growing Up American: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life

Shortly after Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life was published in 1989, critics loaded it with honors: the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction finalist. In making their award, the judges in Los Angeles noted, “Wolff writes in language that is lyrical without embellishment, defines his characters with exact strokes and perfectly pitched voices, [and] creates suspense around ordinary events, locating the deep mystery within them.” For the New York Times review board, Wolff’s memoir was “So absolutely clear and hypnotic…that a reader wants to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully.”

While readers have responded to This Boy’s Life with precisely this enthusiasm for nearly a quarter-century, the New York Times’ challenge—“to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully”—has yet to be accomplished. Clearly the narrative exposes one of the obstacles: it’s not immediately or easily connectable to “the beautiful.” Wolff’s story is an account of his life between the ages of 10 and 16, rough years by any measure, as he drifts about the far west with his divorced and impoverished mother. In the process he acquires a stepfather who bullies him; when he stands up for himself, and his mother, he is forced out of the house and into a form of foster-care. A variety of adventures ensue, not all of them laudable or savory: he learns to create new versions of himself, “selves” more suited to his own ideals at the time. He also learns to have light fingers, starting with pieces of candy and eventually to dollars here and there. At one point he takes a car, joyriding; at another, he writes a bad check in a pharmacy, and is nearly caught. Only his Boy Scout uniform—and his ability to appear innocent—protects him against discovery.  

But his trajectory, his adolescent inability to do more than yearn for a world he cannot imagine actually entering—one where his uncle Stephen lives in Paris, and invites him to join their family for a year of school (he knows no French; he knows no one there; he’s fifteen; he can’t quite accept), or where his older brother Geoffrey Wolff (also a writer--see his The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father [Random House, 1979] for the other half of the family story), who lived with their father when the family split, is a student at Princeton and writes short stories.  From his brother he learns of boarding schools in the East, and he applies, writing not only in the voice of an imagined self, but also creating the recommendation letters from teachers, “in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself.” Something miraculous happens in the crucible of falsehood: “These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.”

Wolff gets into The Hill School, and his future changes. This Boy’s Life is altogether unconventional in its detail but magically universal in its capture of the inner life of boys becoming young men.


--Dr. Robert Yeager, Professor of English, UWF

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