This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, by Tobias Wolff
First published in 1989, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life has become a classic of the contemporary memoir, the kind of book you can finish, like I did, in nearly one sitting. Wolff, the author of numerous works of fiction, including short stories, novels, and a second memoir, has said This Boy’s Life began as notes written to himself about his boyhood—stories he thought he might pass along to his children. But the material kept amassing, and soon it was clear there was a larger story to be told.
The book covers Wolff’s peripatetic and often tumultuous boyhood from the age of ten to high school, after his mother flees her marriage from his father (and leaves behind his elder brother Geoffrey), taking her youngest, Toby, with her. Mother and son drive west, in a car that continually overheats, and their destination is Utah, where a uranium boom is supposedly underway. Though by the time they arrive, the boom is over. And here is where, to borrow the title of Wolff’s latest collection, our story begins:
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
Rosemary, Toby’s mother, is both beautiful and tragically uncertain, and while she knows well the fate of that truck, she’s never sure whether she’s chosen the right job, moved to the right town, or married the right man. A good deal of the story’s tension is founded on Rosemary’s unfortunate choices, but she is clearly devoted to her son, as best she can be, and a thoroughly sympathetic character. She is both beautiful and flawed, with a certain flinty conviction that at crucial points moves mother and son to the next locale.
The voice of Wolff’s narrator is as much the center of the book as the story of Toby and Rosemary ‘s survival. Wolff’s style has been described as lyric clarity, and the voice here carefully and honestly discerns the damaged men, schoolmates, and the places and objects that occupy Toby’s life—and Wolff is no less honest when it comes to the author himself. Here, we see Rosemary, despondent after she returns from her honeymoon with her new husband Dwight:
I had never seen my mother give up. I hadn’t even known the possibility existed, but now I knew, and it gave me pause. It made me feel for a little while the truth that everything good in my life could be lost, that it was all drawn day by day from someone else’s store of hope and will.
The accuracy with which Wolff portrays this world is applied as much to the character of Toby as it is to the people and things in it. Read this book for that winning and insightful voice, and for the thrill of seeing how one boy managed to self-invent his way out of a life that didn’t offer him many favors.