NEA Big Read
This Boy’s Life

This Boy’s Life

by Tobias Wolff

When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests.


Tobias Wolff (photo: Jennifer Hale)

"[This] extraordinary memoir is so beautifully written that we not only root for the kid Wolff remembers, but we also are moved by the universality of his experience." — San Francisco Chronicle

Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy's Life (Grove Press, 1989), is a story about a mother and son trying to survive in 1950s America. Separated from his father and brother and without good male role models, Wolff struggles with his identity and self-respect when his mother moves the two of them across the country. They eventually settle in northern Washington where Wolff finds himself in a battle of wills with a hostile stepfather. Wolff's various schemes—running away to Alaska, forging checks, and stealing cars—lead to an act of self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility. "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" (The Los Angeles Times Book Review).

When Wolff is ten years old, his mother, Rosemary, decides to move them from Florida to Utah, caught up in the desire to strike it rich digging for uranium. When that doesn't work out, they move to Seattle where Wolff finds an outlet for his frustrations through shoplifting, drinking, breaking windows, and writing obscenities in public places. Rosemary, meanwhile, meets Dwight, a man from the town of Chinook, 70 miles north, who succeeds in persuading her to marry him. Wolff spends the rest of his childhood with his mother and Dwight in Chinook, enduring Dwight's petty meanness and cruel verbal and physical abuses. In an attempt to escape Dwight's relentless berating, Wolff joins the Boy Scouts, but Dwight makes himself an assistant scoutmaster. Wolff becomes friends with a boy in his school, Arthur Gayle, but Dwight encourages Wolff to fight Arthur, calling him a "sissy." The high school crowd Wolff eventually joins is far from upstanding. "I grew up in a world where violence was all too common—not deadly violence, so much, but beating, bullying, and threats—certainly in relations between boys, and between men, and often between men and women," Wolff told The Paris Review.

Wolff lives much of his adolescence in his imagination, dreaming up ways to escape his reality. He finally does escape by getting accepted to a prestigious school on the east coast based on fictitious claims that he was a top student, star athlete, and model citizen. The last time he sees Dwight is when Dwight follows Wolff and his mother to Washington, D.C. and tries to strangle his mother. He was "standing in a snowstorm, with policemen holding his arms," said Wolff. "My mother had bruises on her throat for weeks afterwards. They found a knife that he'd thrown into the hedge" (The Guardian). When This Boy's Life came out in 1989, Dwight was still alive, though very ill. "One of my stepsisters called me in a fury and said that her daughter had read aloud This Boy's Life to Dwight while he was lying in bed, and he was so hurt by it," said Wolff. "I think maybe she should have looked at it first" (The Guardian).

Wolff didn't set out to publish a memoir. He was more interested in recording memories "so that my children would know how I grew up," he says. "They were raised in an academic atmosphere, and my mother by that time was a very proper old lady" (The Guardian). "As I started getting these memories down, they took over," he said. "Writers wait for that moment when the material starts to carry them. It happens more rarely than one wants to think, and you're a fool if you don't give in to it when it does" (The Paris Review).

"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," writes The Los Angeles Times Book Review. This Boy's Life was made into a 1993 film of the same name directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Wolff, Robert De Niro as Dwight, and Ellen Barkin as Wolff's mother. It's a story that resonates in more than one medium. "We live by stories," Wolff told The Paris Review. "It's the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are."

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