Comments on Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life: a Memoir (New York: Grove Press, c1989)
Too many memories have revisited me since I read This Boy’s Life a couple of months ago that I have to comment on the importance of this work. First, it was such an easy read, I did not really pay close attention to the artistry of the memoir. When Burk Ketcham and I discussed the work shortly before the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club discussion in late August, I realized I could hardly recall some of the scenes. On second reading, Florida Roy, from whom Rosemary and Toby made an escape, was returned to his supporting role as the first gun-lover the mother connected with in the early narrative. One of the many subjects of significance in the upbringing of Toby that fascinated me was the importance of guns and his power pose as a boy armed. Many other subjects of importance about parenting, education, peer-groups, and creative play-acting, whether benign or malign, came to mind. Had I read this with my companion reader, my wife Susan, I would not have overlooked as much as I had because we would have discussed the work chapter by chapter. With Burk, trying to recall some facts, it was apparent the work deserved a second and close reading.
In what I have to say, I want to mention that I am not overlooking the role of the mother. Though I include her very little in my remarks, she plays a fully rounded figure in the scheme of things. She was experienced in firing a rifle like a sharpshooter, she had experienced physical abuse as a child, and had made abysmally poor decisions in courtship and in choosing male partners to marry. However, she acted with good intentions for Toby, seeking a father figure who might provide shelter of a decent home, but among other missed clues, she was not fully aware of her son’s exploitative aptitudes, giving him too much credit for coping. When my parents came to America, I realized, because of their anxieties in acculturating and establishing a secure life in several cities in Utah in the late 1950s, they did not have time to attend to my behaviors and my coping as they had in our home and school life in England. Toby’s mother was doing her best after a precarious career in family life, marriage, and bringing up children. Hers was a sad career, somewhat tragic, given her penchant for bad judgments with good intentions, but she was constantly trying to find her place in the working world to be a provider and this distracted her from important matters of parenting her boy. Toby’s was also sad, pathetic more than tragic, as he exploited the mother’s pathos, perhaps adopting ingrown habits learned from his father, with whom he had spent the first decade or more of his life.
The opening scene was revealing on second reading: the truck accident that had shaken the mother, the chance that it was the truck that lost its brakes and not her car, which had its engine problems. She stared down into the abyss into which the truck had crashed. With others, she stood looking; “Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm round my shoulder.” (TBL, p. 4) She was so shaken, for the rest of the day on their drive, she would look at young Toby, touching him tenderly, stroking his hair back. It was then, for the first time we get wind of the way Toby knows how to exploit his mother’s weak moment, by gaining loot from the trading store: “a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.”(p. 4) His desire to take advantage of his mother, who he knows has little money, gives us a foreshadowing of the materialistic values of the boy, valuing things in external object-centered terms. This is a characteristic of his craving for power of uniform and guns throughout his adolescent years.
It is a memoir of an alienated boy not unlike the troubled loners of several works we have read in recent selections, characters who don’t really know themselves, or what’s good for them, strangers to other people whom they seek out or pretend to know, and move about in a state of homelessness, vaguely aware of the place they are in: think on Tim Winton’s young outsider in Breath; Billy in Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk; even Meursault from Camus’ The Stranger comes to mind. Except for Billy Lynn, who may mature if he doesn’t die in Iraq, the others come to their senses later in the course of their lives after suffering excruciatingly difficult rites of passage.
Green Grow the Rashes, O
“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, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.” TBL, p. 286.
When and from what experience does one come to the recognition that a person must face up to innocent, self-deceiving behaviors and thoughts and come to one’s senses? Some of the reminiscences by Tobias Wolff about the deplorable state of young Jack’s innocence and the questionable stage of coming of age make the reader aware that self-discovery does not strike as a lightning bolt. A society or collective inculcated with perverse values can also become immune to change of mind for the better (á la Trumpism). It is no wonder that denial, such as young Toby exhibits, can become a habit of thought. Wolff did not hide his discriminating authorial character in narrating the career of the miscreant sociopathic character he was depicting. Wolff’s cautionary-tale as a memoir of his past adolescent career was hardly a nostalgic experience, unless intrinsically in revisiting the pain of his dark, green boyhood. It would seem to be a redemptive story for the author, borne out of later-life remorse and self-recognition.
Like Tobias’s father, whom Geoffrey, the elder Wolff brother, wrote a well-received biography about as The Duke of Deception, young Toby Jack showed an almost tragic biological trait of playing impostor. It must have registered with the mature author of his memoir This Boy’s Life that Toby Jack portrayed an exemplar of the persistence of deception. It was periodically asserted that the boy would not come to his senses suddenly after a life lived in posturing, posing and playing the impostor. Not exactly a bildungsroman, the career of Toby Jack did not lead the reader to have any expectation of a recognition scene, after which in the tragic plot a peripeteia or turning point would occur. Believable characters in biographies or literary fiction do not alter established habits of thought and action during a short period of life experience. Tobias Wolff’s honest memoir admits that adolescent tomfoolery and smug deception can go on just so long in life until one recognizes what was wrong with one’s values and ambitions while one was growing up.
A memoir written in a novelistic narrative is feat of trickery because one does have to fictionalize incidents with artistic rhetoric, often with a level of diction not befitting a juvenile or adolescent, and dramatizing dialogue that could not have been recalled precisely. Years ago I wrote memoirs of my juvenile and adolescent life in England, choosing a first person narrative and a short story form. My term for the series of stories was “mythemes.” The response by several intimates of my English family and friends who might have known of my exploits was that I was a liar. Obviously, as a budding fiction writer, I realized I was falsifying a great deal to make the stories decent, readable fiction. They were much like folk tales of a past time and at times I became frustrated by the need to re-elaborate my lived experiences as fictions. My mother and my young aunt were allowed to edit the details which they had shared in and I did my best to tailor the story towards their memories of personalities, time and event. No matter, I had to make some things up and I was not fully aware of sometimes significant literary motives that rose out of the fabulation.
One example of gross intrusion of my literary inventions came in the description of a neat pile of dog shit upon which I deliberately sat to soil my best Sunday school suit trousers, thus creating an excuse not to attend the afternoon church. My grandmother would perhaps understand the ruse but keep me in her home to clean my shorts as best she could. Sure, this sounds like a disgusting way of avoiding going to church services; however, I detested going to the place and felt no part of the church, felt no guilt for not attending as often as I could get away with it. After all, I was a wretched church-going surrogate for my family and felt alienated by the experience.
Now, the faeces in question [I do hope I haven’t put the read off reading further] were described as a small heap of iridescent greenish matter coiled into a minaret, like a swirled soft ice-cream dollop or an upside-down garlic bulb that sits atop the towers in mosque architecture. Of course, I had no sure recollection of this design of the dog shit, but it fit perfectly in my fiction as a counter to the Christian church I was seeking to escape, and in some Freudian metaphoric way it took on an interesting psychological symbolism of my alienation from the community, society, and the world that I felt apart from. As a juvenile character I presented myself as quite ignorant of the implications of my gross behavior, ignorant really of the world I was in and my place in it. From this act I did escape Sunday school and once my grandmother and my aunt, who knew of my many absences, told my parents a series of tales of ruses I had used to avoid attending the services, I was soon released from that weekly anxiety and thereafter sought to deal with my childhood neuroses through different mischievous behaviors.
In his memoir, Wolff expresses his narration in first person, from ostensibly the boy’s point of view as the author casts back to his childhood mentality. In a novelistic form, a memoirist’s faulty memory may be at work in such subtle and difficult reminiscences of experience. Actions of plot are stalled by the author’s intrusions, subtle changes of point of view, insights of the mature author commenting on the imagination of an innocent and the ways an adolescent compensates for inadequacy, incompetence, and impotence.
“Though I avoided the apartment, I could not shake the idea that sooner or later I would get the rifle out again. All my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me. This much I understood now. But the man can give no help to the boy, not in this matter nor in those that follow. The boy moves always out of reach.” (TBL, p. 27)
This offers a nice hybrid stylization of memoir writing, for though we are to imagine the boy’s motivation to realize the toxic power of the rifle after his shock at firing and killing the squirrel, he does not want to give up the terrible power. The analysis that follows is the recognition of the mature Tobias who understands well the fascination of the gun and offers a foreshadowing that this boy, who did not know himself, may not come easily to his senses. The question comes to mind: when does a person come of age, discovering the self, one’s being, and can it be as stark as the moments of recognition that audiences have come to appreciate in coming-of-age literature and film.
The above remarks about distance in stance are a fair admission by the author, the man who cannot help the boy, that to provide an honest autobiographical chronology for “fictional” Toby Jack, he cannot adjust the facts for the sake of a literary technique to seduce the audience to expect a change of heart or satisfy readers’ appetites. By this I mean employing a recognition scene where Jack sees the errors of his ways, after which the plot turns aright. Great literature of past ages, especially ancient works of tragedy, exploited the recognition device to bring the plot to a crisis of peripeteia or a turning-point from ignorance to knowledge. Dramatic plots of the past century’s literary artists have avoided anagnorisis or recognition as a rather tawdry device befitting melodrama but not serious realistic genres. Homer’s Odyssey, in the revealing of the disguised hero, through its many episodes of recognition scenes could be understood as a crowd pleaser for the ancient bard, but the devices of an ancient literary theory of audience participation differ much from those of modern literary theory, in which recognition can be seen as a cliché. This is not to say that many mystery stories, fine ones included, should do away with the discovery or recognition scene.
The major crisis of Toby’s inability to confess his guilt, to apologize to the impoverished Welch family for his part in the gasoline theft, is the best evidence for the “lost” boy’s difficulty in recognizing himself and beginning a fresh path to conscious, moral living. I could say there was a pseudo-recognition in that Tobias Wolff describes the inner life of the boy:
“It takes a childish or corrupt imagination to make symbols of other people. I didn’t know the Welches. I had no right to see them this way. I had no right to feel fear or pity or disgust, no right to feel anything but sorry for what I had done. I did feel these things, though. A kind of panic came over me. I couldn’t take a good breath. All I wanted to do was get away.” (Italics mine, p.246)
Then he adds: “…I stayed where I was, watching the Welch boys pull up mud. I could not make myself move or speak.” (p. 247) The truth from Tobias Wolff that the boy did not possess the power to apologize. “All I was able to say was that I could not.” (p.247) In shock at what he saw in the Welches’ futile action in muddy post-hole digging, Toby stood frozen in emotional stasis. He could not utter an apology, though he states he wanted to,.
This Boy of the title a year or so beforehand with his friends in Seattle, before his mother met Dwight, had come to understand that one did not have to sympathize with victims. “Victims are contemptible.” The memoir presents a psychopathological, troubled adolescent: the fixation on guns, his acquiring of the image of one’s powerful self, armed with a rifle. Take for example the way young Toby Jack interpreted televised history of World War II, how false values are drawn from propaganda images of soldiers and victory over the Jew-hating Nazi devils:
“But these glimpses of humiliation and loss lasted only a few minutes. They were tacked on as a pretense that the point of the show was to celebrate the victory of goodness over evil. We saw through this fraud, of course. We saw that the real point was to celebrate snappy uniforms and racy Mercedes staff cars and great marching, thousands of boots slamming down together on cobblestone streets while banners streamed overhead and strong voices sang that stirred our blood though we couldn’t understand a word. The point was to watch Stukas peel off and dive toward burning cities, tanks blowing holes in buildings, men with Lugers and dogs ordering people around. These shows instructed us further in the faith we were already beginning to hold: that victims are contemptible, no matter how much people pretend otherwise; that it is more fun to be on the inside than outside, to be arrogant than to be kind, to be with a crowd than to be alone.” (p. 41-42)
The boy feels pretty much above everyone, he cannot drop down into a humble humane awareness; he craves power so much.
The Film and the Literature
The Book Club viewed the film after discussion of the book. Another discussion was warranted afterwards that may have taken place over coffee on the Friday meetings. Fortunately, with twenty-odd years having passed, I had little or no memory of the film This Boy’s Life (directed by Michael Caton- Jones, 1993). The film was a light version of This Boy’s Life, the deeper meaning of the boy’s errors and the development of perverse psychological behaviors are missing. After a recent viewing of This Boy’s Life, I did not fully recognize Toby in Di Caprio’s Toby and De Niro’s Dwight. The boy had lived a pillar-to-post life and was portrayed as a more likeable kid, a boy mildly subjugated by his new family, his main challenge being an inability to please or successfully thwart a step-father, a man of severely arrested development. The authorial commentary about the mistaken icons and erroneous values mischievous kids pick up or are taught was missing. The dangers of the gun and the sense of power in being armed were absent. The film story was a melodramatic antagonism between a willful boy and his inept step-father. To escape the influence of an ignorant, abusive man by both the mother and the boy was the moment of success, and with that flight came hopeful expectations of lives changing for the better.
Also absent was how Toby became not only enamored of the rifle but a practicing sniper, pretending he had power over the unwitting passersby. Tobias Wolff’s theme of the difficulty of remorse in the nasty, lying boy, constantly brought down and not allowed a fair share of up-bringing, was left out. The crisis of the gasoline heist from the impoverished Welch family was a major lacuna from the powerful scenes and motifs of the book. The high point of shocked stasis in young Jack’s inability to fully confess himself, to admit guilt and express apologetic emotions to the offended family, this crisis was left out, a crucial element, the powerful insight of the literary memoir. The movie was more escapist in finding a satisfying conclusion; the book left the question open about the difficulty of self-recognition. Escaping Dwight’s clutches was not the beginning of good times.
Possibility of Change?
Toby is not “our hero.” He’s our present day nightmare. How comforting it would be—what wishful thinking!—to see him turn around and see for himself what a prevaricating little shit he has been developing into. Such an awakening, a taking off of masks, does not occur in the story narrative of Toby’s voice. Yet, it is there in a most subtle way, the grown author’s premonition to the readers he wouldn’t write such terrors of a boy’s growing “down,” without allowing his hero to turn around and face himself. Mere intimations of recognition, the dire need of coming to one’s senses, are hinted at to the very end of Jack’s sordid career:
[At Hill School] “It scared me to do so poorly when so much was expected, and to cover my fear I became one of the school wild-men—a drinker, a smoker, a make-out artist at the mixers we had…. While the boys around me nodded off during Chapel, I prayed like a Moslem, prayed that I would somehow pull myself up again so I could stay in this place that I secretly and deeply loved.” (TBL, p. 285-286)
Education in the public or private schools could not change the boy. It made me wonder whether any teacher really knew the boy. Late in the work a fuller exposition emerges:
“My best friend got kicked out of [Hill] school a few weeks after me, and the two of us proceeded to rage. I wore myself out with raging. Then I went into the army. I did so with a sense of relief and homecoming. It was good to find myself back in the clear light of uniforms and ranks and weapons. It seemed to me when I got there that this was where I was going all along, and where I might still redeem myself. All I needed was a war.” (TBL p. 287)
The Vietnam War taught America a sad lesson about toxic warfare. So, for the youthful, maturing Tobias Wolff, the recognition, the discovery of one’s being, and the need for change did not fully arrive until the pseudo-power of uniform, rank, and the gun, the image of oneself as an armed person, was experienced and realized for what it was.
Looking back at his life of alienation in adolescence, Wolff depicts a troubled American boy, caught up in values and peer group experiences that lead him to a life of deception of society and family, and ultimately to self-deception. A boy who could convert the values of a historical documentary to being propaganda for the diametrically opposite values had serious sociopathic tendencies. Did he really know he was a mess?
Another pseudo-recognition as Jack compares himself with Chuck Bolger:
“He [Chuck] wanted a good life. The good life he had in mind for himself was just as conventional as the one I had in mind for myself, though without its epic pretensions. And Chuck still had faith in his, whereas I was losing mine. I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen to me. My life was a mess, and because I understood the problem as one of bad luck I could imagine no remedy but good luck, which I didn’t seem to have.” (p.256)
The Image Holds Power
Written before the Paducah, Kentucky school shooting by the juvenile boys in 1997, Wolff was writing quite presciently of the innocents who craved power by the gun. The incidents of the innocent boy playing rifle sniper were very gripping in the technique of tension in the plot. Long before video games, there were models aplenty for the importance of owning a gun or having expertise with guns in Toby Jack’s world. When I read of his training the rifle out onto the street through the curtains in the darkened house, the hairs stood up on my neck. He was aiming at passing pedestrians; he killed a squirrel; then he stood armed in front of the door through which a visiting nun, formerly a confessional mentor, was standing waiting for a response to her knock. Had she tried the door, the only potential greeter was a twelve-year-old boy with a loaded Winchester-.22 rifle, half-cocked.
The best I can say for the secret sniper passages of This Boy’s Life is that I was pushed a little further into realization how a young person can become transfixed by gun-toting avenger-type heroes who show themselves redeemed by bullet-protection or gun vengeance.
When I was first in Utah, age 14, living in the Bear River Valley, I became aware of young boy’s joy of shooting pistols and rifles. No hood myself, I palled around with a group of black-jacketed boys. In 17,000-population Brigham City, no real gang, but a group of school-sloughing, beer-drinking, Lucky Strike-smoking punks, possessed of some roomy Chevy coups buffed to a high Simonize sheen, they gave me rides from school and sometimes took me to the dump to plug rats at night as we slugged down beer and puffed on Luckys. In England I had begun to enjoy cigarettes very early, but I had no great desire to shoot either pistol or rifle, not even a pellet gun. Once in a while, just to save face, I aimed aimlessly and pulled a trigger. In no way did I have the feeling of power or strength that I felt the other kids felt from the outing. Their television-watching history had outstripped mine by years. For them, Jack Palance or dark-clad Paladin was more the image of respect than that of the sheriff. Why? Wasn’t a young, masked Billy the Kid a graphic comic-book hero and how many other masked men—Zorro, Lone Ranger, the Green Lantern–good at marksmanship or some skill of military weaponry?
Sure, at times I felt inklings of the mystique of the gun, but being an immigrant from a rather gun-less society in England, I had no instinctual inclination to shoot anything, not a bottle, certainly not a rat. The power I carried to America with me was, unlike the kids who befriended me, a quite studious, secret interest in birds, fish, ponds, plants. I loved biology, a naturalistic curiosity from living close to fields and streams, and I did sketching out in the countryside—wild-flowers, birds, insects, animals. Not an Arthur, but to be called a sissy, I was not about to expose myself. And there was power in being a loner: an alien resident, not at all happy to be in a world I did not know, I was content, for a long time of acculturation, in doing things alone for my own satisfaction. For me, Utah was a strange country and the Mormon society had no hold on me or my parents.
The scenes of Toby Jack’s comeuppance with Arthur were very important, but he learned too little from a marginal engagement with one of Concrete’s originals. Too bad Toby didn’t become a pal of Arthur’s; outsiders can learn much from other outsiders. A missed rite of passage. Toby Jack mostly wanted to and continued to seek opportunities, as Tobias Wolff states, won by “epic pretensions.”