Last fall I read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff as part of a memoir class taught by the lovely and talented Peggy Millin. Wolff’s coming of age memoir reads like a novel, packed with action, dialogue, and crazy characters. The story moves quickly, tense with the shenanigans of a boy entering puberty who is moved across country by his divorced mother as she leaves one abusive boyfriend, only to marry another. We are shown a portrait of a teenager trying to find a self-image that differentiates him from his mother’s various men, while still endearing himself to the mother he adores. In the background hangs the ever-present hope that he might reconnect with his biological father and brother in this search for manhood.
Set mostly in the upper northwest in the 1950s, Wolff creates scenes of school and scouts and home rich with detail. We easily imagine the boy and his awkward friends as they find ways to get out of their homes and into trouble. The author expertly develops a large cast of characters, including employers and stepsiblings and teachers and classmates. His mother is particularly memorable, written with a love he clearly still holds, but complete with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that lead her family of two into difficult and sometimes harsh situations.
Although I don’t really relate to teen boys determined to get into trouble, quick to lie and cheat and steal, I found this book an enjoyable read. While I occasionally wondered whether he didn’t exaggerate some of his memories for affect, I appreciated the perspective of a child seeking adulthood while watching the adults around him with both fascination and disgust. I found myself as repulsed by his stepfather and as forgiving of his mother as he was.
Wolff did a good job of using summary sparingly and well, moving us from one home or city to another to keep the main thread of the story alive. His believable dialogue put me in the room with the people he encountered. By the end, when he summarized the years following these stories, I wanted to know more. How did he get from this mischievous teenager to an accomplished author? I would recommend the book, especially to men, but also perhaps to mothers of boys, like myself.