A look at This Boy’s Life, and some thoughts on The Catcher in the Rye

On this blog, I would like to review new books as they come up, but since this is my first review and I’m still figuring out how to go about writing them, I thought I’d go with something I already know and love. One thing I do know is that I’d like to write about how particular books resonate with me on a personal level, rather than attempt to objectively evaluate them.

I’ll begin with This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. First published in 1989, it is the memoir of Wolff, recounting his childhood.

Essentially, This Boy’s Life is the story of a boy growing up in a post-divorce family in 1950’s America. What’s interesting to me is that I never would have identified it as a memoir without first knowing that it was. To me, it reads like a good story, simple as that. Wolff just describes things as they happen, with little or nothing in the way of post-facto rationalisations.

While his brother grew up in relative comfort with his father, Wolff lived in working class neighbourhoods with his mother. As a boy, Wolff was a liar, he admits. He lied to himself, and to others, his imagination serving as a means of escaping the harsh reality of his childhood (early in the story, he changes his name from Tobias to Jack, the element of fantasy inspiring this). His grades were poor, he drank underage, and he often got into fistfights.

I know some people who have compared This Boy’s Life to J. D. Salinger‘s work, The Catcher in the Rye, though I’m not really sure why. I mean, in principle I almost can understand why people would, but it doesn’t work for me in practice. First of all, one is a memoir and the other is fiction. The common thread, if you can call it that, is the ‘coming of age’ aspect, along with the whole ‘black sheep’ theme.

From there, I see more differences than similarities.

When I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I enjoyed it. I read it during my teens. It was the peak of my adolescence, and while I never would have admitted it then, I liked the idea of being a black sheep. I wanted to have people hate me, and to leave for school every day and say ‘fuck you’ to as many people as possible. As far as books were concerned, The Catcher in the Rye was right up my alley.

Looking back, I think that while I’d convinced myself that I was a black sheep, I wasn’t even close to actually being one. It’s not easy to admit, but I was posing. I liked the attention, and acting like a misfit was an easy way to get it. Over a decade later, having toned down my attitude, I don’t relate to that mindset or The Catcher in the Rye anywhere near as much. I’m still a fan of the ‘me-against-the-world’ sentiment famously expressed by Salinger’s archetypal sullen teenager. However, as time goes on, I’m drawn more to the harsh reality of This Boy’s Life. To put it kindly, Holden Caufield now strikes me as a whiny, needy, obnoxious, never-satisfied cynic who doesn’t appreciate anything. That’s more or less how I used to be. Maybe that’s the real reason I’m so over The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe I daydreamed as Wolff did.

As for Wolff, he genuinely struggled as a youth, and he makes this clear in his memoir. As readers, we see him grow up in poverty. His stepfather is, for the most part, the quintessential asshole stepfather – physically and verbally abusive, drinking excessively and stealing money from Wolff  and his mother Rosemary. The only time we see anything resembling a bond between Dwight and Wolff is when Wolff takes his aggression out on a local ‘sissy.’ Hardly the sentiment of a positive role-model. Despite this, Dwight is not simply set up to be demonised in every instance. The scene where he meets Kenneth – the latter attempting to impose his smug sense of superiority on Dwight’s family – almost makes Dwight look good. Almost.

I find it very hard to fault Wolff’s mother. Rosemary would never intentionally hurt him, and her intentions are good, but her follow-through leads her and Wolff into some disastrous domestic situations, e.g. living with Dwight. Her own abusive childhood is the catalyst for disorder, leading her to emulate her past with a string of abusive, neglectful men. Despite this, Rosemary does not lose her sense of self or her devotion to her son. She is always aspiring to make a better life.

At the very least, This Boy’s Life considers the perspectives of others, and not just that of the protagonist. Wolff could very easily have made this memoir all about him, and I’m sure he could have done it well, but he didn’t. This, to me, is a real positive.

Nevertheless, I am charmed most by Wolff himself. Despite his miserable upbringing, like his mother he remains optimistic in regards to his future. Although he does all the wrong things a boy can do, he takes responsibility for his actions. There is no malevolent intention on his part, he just finds himself in all the wrong places, and he lets his imagination get the better of him. Who hasn’t been in that situation at some point in their lives?

His loyalty to his mother is perhaps his most endearing characteristic, he feels a strong sense of duty and is always looking out for his mother, sometimes reversing the role of parent and child. Here, Wolff reveals a rare level of insight and maturity for boys his age. The only instances where he craves attention are when he experiences it first hand. Like a cigarette, you don’t feel like you need it until you’ve had it regularly.

Everyone has problems in life. I know it seems like I’m savaging the Holden Caufield type, but I’m really not. People feel pain; they suffer, regardless of privilege. I suppose I’m just telling myself more than anyone that, somewhere out there, someone is having a worse day than me. It would be fair to say that I read This Boy’s Life to keep myself grounded, and to enjoy a great text.

It is a story detailing a litany of complex characters with an abundance of feeling. It depicts the tough life of an individual while making room for the thoughts and feelings of those around him, not merely there to play the foils. I can see myself reading it again periodically in the future.

Thank you for reading.

My thoughts on Korn and their new single, ‘Hater’

While it would be tactful of me to introduce the band to the reader, I’m going to focus more on my personal thoughts regarding Korn and their latest single. For an overview of the band, click here. It details their history and discography more eloquently than I could.

I’ve been a fan of Korn since I was ten. I saw the ‘A.D.I.D.A.S.’ music video on TV, and a year later, Follow the Leader came out and sealed the deal. Untouchables is my favourite album and I don’t know what could possibly top it.

Why I love Korn: To quote an MTV feature article, they ‘created a haven for frustrated, angry listeners who ached for something heavy, but sneered at the conventions of traditional heavy metal.’ I’ve never been crazy about guitar solos and power chords. Do I appreciate them? Sometimes, yes. I’m not the type who listens to the same kind of music all the time. That being said, I gravitate more towards rock and metal bands that are rhythm-based, that function as bands as opposed to a singer and guitarist looking pretty in the spotlight, while the bassists and drummers do all the grunt-work, practically behind the scenes. This isn’t to say that I dislike the latter kind, far from it. I certainly don’t ‘sneer’ at it either. Rather, rhythm-based music hits the spot for me more than anything. As for lyrics, I don’t look for any particular theme or focus. It’s more about the flow than the actual content. Although, every now and then I’ll hear some lyrics that resonate with me on a personal level.

As for the here-and-now: Korn’s most recent effort, The Paradigm Shift, was released in October of 2013. The band are dropping another deluxe edition of the album on 15 July. Titled The Paradigm Shift: World Tour Edition, it will feature several unreleased tracks and live cuts, one of which is the single ‘Hater’.

The instrumentation is nice and tight, with Fieldy’s bass and Ray Luzier’s retentive drumming anchoring the twin-guitar sound of Brian ‘Head’ Welch and James ‘Munky’ Shaffer. However, this track stands out in that it’s upbeat, musically and lyrically. Not your standard Korn fare. It’s the kind of song that may alienate fans at first, possibly drawing them back later. I suppose it is ‘poppy’ in the sense that it’s accessible and radio-friendly, as opposed to the bludgeoning force that characterises tracks such as ‘Love & Meth’. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Previous singles ‘Got the Life’, ‘Twisted Transistor’ and ‘Never Never’ are radio-friendly tracks that have nevertheless managed to sit comfortably in the playlists of many hardcore fans. Even the ill-conceived cover of Cameo’s ‘Word Up!’ earned some props.

Lyrically, ‘Hater’ is typically direct. As is the case with vocalist Jonathan Davis, he pulls no punches. He’s not the type who bothers with clever little hidden meanings, he goes straight for the jugular. In ‘Hater’, he sings, ‘You can’t bring me down / Already had my life turned upside down / I ride a downward spiral round and round / But I keep flying, I keep fighting / You won’t ever bring me down.’ This kind of sentiment isn’t completely out of left-field, but it is somewhat unique for a band of Korn’s ilk. Davis has gone past the point of despair, of feeling wronged, instead opting for a more stoic outlook regarding his detractors.

As I’ve mentioned, ‘Hater’ is to be featured on the new deluxe edition of The Paradigm Shift. Normally, when I hear of an unreleased track, I tend to prepare myself for a second-rate number that didn’t make the album precisely for that reason: because it’s second-rate. This is not the case with ‘Hater’. Sure, it may be different. But this difference is nothing new; it seems to have been the case with all of Korn’s material since See You on the Other Side. It’s not exclusive to the post-Head/David era either. I remember UntouchablesIssues and even Follow the Leader leaving more than just a few scattered fans scratching their heads. And these are albums that now enjoy the status of ‘Korn classics.’

Korn’s recent direction hasn’t pleased everyone, and there are many who long for the day when original drummer David Silveria returns to the fold, for reasons I understand and agree with. But the band are happy as they are, and for all we know, that David-reunion may never happen. It is perhaps the difference between the new sound and the old that makes the perceived golden-age of Korn (1994-2003) so special. I say ‘perceived,’ as it wasn’t loved by all the fans, all the time. It’s just something to keep in mind.

Thank you for reading.

Introduction

This is my blog. Some entries will be on books, music, film and culture in general. Other entries will concern more basic thoughts. It won’t be Kurt Vonnegut-grade material, just whatever happens to hit the keyboard on a particular day.

Thank you, and happy reading.

I'm just a guy who loves books, Korn and a good conversation.

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