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.