This Boy's Life: A Memoir

Introduction

This Boy's Life: A Memoir (1989) is by American author Tobias Wolff. It describes the author's adolescence as he wanders the continental United States with his mother, after his parents had separated when he was five.

The first leg of their journey takes them from Florida to Utah, where his mother hopes to get rich quick finding uranium, after fleeing an abusive partner. Eventually Wolff's mother becomes involved with Dwight Hansen, and they settle in Concrete, Washington, north of Seattle in the North Cascade Mountains. Whilte it has much natural beauty, the small company town in where they both encounter personal desolation. The novel was adapted as a film by the same name, released in 1993.

Plot summary

In 1955, Toby and his mother, Rosemary, are on their way to Utah to make their fortune by mining uranium. While in Utah, Toby changes his name to Jack in honor of the author Jack London and also to remove himself from his father, who abandoned Jack and his mother shortly after Jack was born. Jack's father has remarried to a millionaire and is living in Connecticut, while Jack's older brother, Geoffrey, has started as a student at Princeton.

Jack shares an intimate closeness with his mother who, because of her own abusive childhood, habitually gets involved with violent and volatile men. First, there is Roy, Rosemary's second husband, who follows Rosemary and Jack from Florida to Utah. Rosemary moves with Jack to Seattle to get away from Roy, where she meets Dwight. He seems harmless until Jack joins them in Chinook, where Dwight reveals himself to be cruel, self-centered, and petty, and instantly dislikes Jack and his mother. Dwight criticizes and berates Jack for real and imagined flaws, and his rants are constantly at the forefront of Jack's mind. Dwight assigns Jack chores for no reason other than to exhibit his power and control over the household. Dwight also forces Jack to deliver newspapers and takes the money Jack earns for himself. The only time Dwight expresses a genuine interest in Jack is when he teaches Jack how to fight. Dwight is excited by Jack's display of aggression, especially because it will be directed against Arthur Gayle, a "sissy" who has a short-lived friendship with Jack.

Jack takes refuge in his unusually vivid imagination. Dwight's abuse and Jack's own general unhappiness in Chinook fuel Jack's fantasies. Jack longs to escape from Chinook so that he can recreate himself, but he can only live the life he wants for himself in his own mind. Jack submits exaggerated applications to private schools, claiming that he is an A-student, star athlete, and good citizen. Jack is obsessed with the idea of himself as a virtuous and gifted young man, and convinces himself that his lies are the truth.

Jack has many dreams of running away, but he never succeeds in making it happen. His first real attempt at running away involves a plan to flee to Alaska with friend Arthur Gayle. Jack plans to make his getaway after a Boy Scout meeting in another town, but he ends up befriending a group of boys from another troop, distancing himself from Arthur, and being conned out of all of his money in a game of chance. Later, Jack tries to take refuge with his older brother, Geoffrey, at Princeton. But his brother is a graduating senior and living with their biological father is out of the question.

Jack also writes to his uncle in Paris, detailing the harsh life he endures with his stepfather, and asking to be taken in. When the issue eventually boils down to Jack having to be adopted, he refuses and stays in Washington with his mother.

Jack finally gets the opportunity to leave Chinook and start a new life when he is accepted to the prestigious Hill School near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mr. Howard, an alumnus of Hill, interviews Jack and serves as Jack's mentor. Later, when Mr. Howard and his wife have Jack fitted for a new wardrobe, Jack is warmed by their attention and affection, which he has had very little of at home.

Before Jack leaves home for Hill, he and Rosemary leave Dwight, after Dwight shoves Jack in front of her. Rosemary arranges for Jack to live temporarily with his friend Chuck Bolger. Although Jack promises his mother that he will be on his best behavior while at the Bolgers', he breaks his promise. He is caught stealing gasoline from the nearby Welch farm. Jack feels terrible about stealing from the Welches, but cannot bring himself to apologize, which infuriates Mr. Bolger. Mr. Bolger arranges for Jack to work at the Welch farm, but the Welches refuse Jack's help.

Meanwhile, Chuck Bolger is about to be arrested for the statutory rape of Tina Flood, an underage pregnant teenager, presumably carrying his child. The sheriff offers to excuse Chuck if he agrees to marry Tina, but Chuck refuses because he has a dream of leading an "ideal" marriage and life. Chuck is on the verge of being sent to jail when he discovers that another defendant, Huff, has agreed to marry Tina in his place.

The summer before Jack is due to begin at Hill, he goes to California to have time with his father and brother for the first time since their parents separated. Immediately after Jack arrives, however, his father leaves for Las Vegas with his girlfriend, providing a few supplies for him and a friend to contact. When Jack's father returns, he is arrested and later committed to a mental sanitarium, where he remains for the rest of the summer. While Jack is staying with his mother for Christmas break at her new home in Washington, D.C., Dwight finds them and tries to strangle Rosemary in the lobby of her apartment building. Rosemary knees Dwight in the groin, and he steals her purse and runs away. Immediately afterward, Dwight is arrested. It would be the last time Jack would see Dwight. Jack cannot keep up his grades at Hill, and is expelled midway through his senior year. After he is expelled from school, Jack joins the army and serves in the Vietnam War.

Characters

  • Geoffrey Wolff – Jack's older brother who lives with his father.
  • Tobias Wolff – The main protagonist in the story, who changes his name to Jack.
  • Dwight Hansen – Jack's stepfather, the main antagonist in the story.
  • Rosemary Wolff – Jack's mother
  • Arthur Gayle – A classmate whom Toby befriends.
  • Roy – Rosemary's second husband, who stalks her at the beginning of the book.
Reception

This memoir was highly praised. It won the Ambassador Book Award.

Adaptation

A film adaptation by the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, was released in 1993. The film had mostly positive reviews. It emphasized Jack's relationship with Dwight.


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