This Boy’s Life

Tobias Wolff has long been one of my favorite short story writers. I had never read a book-length work from him so while browsing a book store, this book caught my eye. The reading experience, much like Wolff’s short stories, was deceptively easy, seemingly uncomplex and straight forward in a particularly mid-century male American way. But what brews beneath the simple writing in this book is a story full of pain, anguish, shame and longing.

The structure and form of the book, including the uncomplicated language and sentence structure, is perfectly fit to the age and life experience of the main character - a young Tobias “Jack” Wolff. To write with any more wisdom would have betrayed an authorial distance that is only present near the end of the book. The rest of the time, the story is best served through this author/character closeness, so we can truly feel how he felt as a boy. We feel a full set of emotions about Dwight, about Wolff’s mother, brother and friends, and about his childhood preoccupations or social and academic struggles.

The concept of lying or adherence to truth is always central to any memoir. After reading in this genre deeply for a few years now, I’m tired of this question. There’s a clear betrayal of trust when authors like James Frey pen a fake memoir. But I’m more in the camp of David Carr, say, who knows he is an untrustable narrator but that doesn’t keep him from trying to tell the best version of his story he can. In fact, lying is a central feature in this book for good reason. Young boys, under the thumb of a tyrannical head of household, learn to lie for a reason. It’s a skill for self preservation. And to remove that from Wolff’s story would be to deny a central and fascinating part of this book.