This boy's life : a memoir

by Tobias Wolff

Paperback, 1989




New York : Grove Press, [2000], c1989.


Biography & Autobiography. Nonfiction. HTML: First published in 1989, this memoir has become a classic in the genre. With this book, Wolff essentially launched the memoir craze that has been going strong ever since. It was made into a movie in 1993. Fiction writer Tobias Wolff electrified critics with his scarifying 1989 memoir, which many deemed as notable for its artful structure and finely wrought prose as for the events it describes. The story is pretty grim: Teenaged Wolff moves with his divorced mother from Florida to Utah to Washington State to escape her violent boyfriend. When she remarries, Wolff finds himself in a bitter battle of wills with his abusive stepfather, a contest in which the two prove to be more evenly matched than might have been supposed. Deception, disguise, and illusion are the weapons the young man learns to employ as he grows upâ??not bad training for a writer-to-be. Somber though this tale of family strife is, it is also darkly funny and so artistically satisfying that listeners come away exhilarated.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
em>This Boy's Life was spellbinding. Tobias Wolff's personal memoir is not tremendous. It may even sound familiar to anyone who comes from a broken home, had troubles with a step-parent, or had a mischievous streak. What makes This Boy's Life such a page turner is the honesty that radiates from
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every page, every sentence. It is not an overwhelming tragic tale, but it is painful and real. Wolff does not paint a picture of a hero, nor victim. It's just an account of a troubled childhood. The writing is so clear, so unmuddied, that we can easily see bits of our own childhoods reflected in every chapter.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
I think I was still suffering from the aftermath of reading a spectacular book ([Matterhorn]) until I was about three quarters of the way through this one because I just could not connect with the characters or the lives depicted by Wolff. This is his memoir and he recounts his life from 1955 when
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he's a sixth grader through high school. It's reminiscent of many other memoirs I've read including [The Glass Castle], [The Tender Bar] and [The Liar's Club] but it lacks the humor that those authors brought to their narratives which made the despairing parts easier to take. It does seem to follow the same formulaic pattern, namely dysfunctional parents, one of which has totally left the scene, a mother who goes from one loser mate to another until you find yourself wringing your hands at the futility of the situation, emotional abuse of the children, and a flighty pattern that finds the protagonist flip-flopping from one place to another across the country. The other thing that this memoir lacks is a likable protagonist. He steals, forges his way through the application process for prep school, lies pretty much all the time and just did not endear himself to me as many other memoir victims have.

Fortunately, about three-quarters of the way through the book I finally found my interest being held. Wolff's writing started to resemble the crisp, delicious prose I fell in love with in his novel [Old School]. I didn't like him much more than I had, but I appreciated the writing.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
The memoirs of a teenage dirtbag. If nothing else, "This Boys Life" deserves credit for its author's clear-eyed appraisal of his younger self. He freely and plainly admits that he was once an insecure, mendacious, durg-abusing time-waster, and that, in itself, constitutes an act of some bravery.
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While the author grew up in a supremely undistinguished small town in the Pacific Northwest, his father was once a prep school boy, and "This Boys Life" contains a perceptive description of the then-fading system of aristocratic privilege operated at that point in time. The author seems to have had a writer's eye for description and characterization even when he had almost no interest in either reading or writing books, and this serves him well. "This Boy's Life" also has a terrific villain, Dwight, the author's stepfather, who is portrayed as a small, jealous, controlling, vain and violent man and is, without a doubt, one of the most unpleasant characters I've ever encountered in print. It's pretty clear from the author's telling that his mother, who is portrayed as both smart and resourceful, never really wanted to marry him but was more or less pressured into it by friends who insisted that she needed a partner and that her son needed a father. If anyone needs some evidence that a single-parent home is sometimes a better option than a bad marriage, "This Boys Life" provides an excellent case study.

In a way, though, the author's forthrightness makes "This Boy's Life" a less interesting book than it could have been. Wolff's easy duplicity meant that he lived a sort of double life for much of his adolescence, and his parents' background make for an unusual perspective on downward class mobility and snobbery in general. These themes are really best dealt with in novels, and so it's possible that I should just move on to this author's fiction. "This Boy's Life" is a fine example of the "midlife memoir" genre, but perhaps this one would have worked better as an autobiographical novel. Recommended, in any case, to fans of this genre.
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LibraryThing member eenee
A high school friend once mentioned that his was her favorite book and since then this book has stuck in my head as something I should read. I’m glad I finally got around to it. That said, this story definitely challenged me. As a hardcore rule-follower it weirded me out that this kid was such a
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pathological liar. (I know it isn’t cool to say that you like following rules, I’m not a conservative asshole, I swear, it’s just that even breaking tiny rules makes me break out in hives. I have theories about why, but I won’t bore you with them here.) I still really enjoyed the story, but at moments I couldn’t fully understand how or why this guy did the stuff he did. Writing his uncle a bunch of lies behind his mother’s back to try to get himself sent to Paris? Fabricating all his transcripts and letters of recommendation to get into a prep school? Yikes. Just thinking about doing that stuff makes me break into a sweat.
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LibraryThing member ProfH
I'm surprised by the relatively low score this memoir has received. I found it very honest and funny. Maybe I could relate to Jack more than other readers, or at least sympathize more? Also possible that I've always enjoyed the bildungsroman genre, too. It isn't Portrait of an Artist, but for a kid
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from a town called Concrete, it is a pretty good effort!
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
As a young boy, Toby Wolff and his divorced mother left Florida (and the abusive man they had been living with) for Utah, where his mother thought they could cash in on the "uranium rush". Eventually they ended up in Seattle where his mother married yet another controlling bastard, a Great Santini
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sort of character with a weaker moral compass and no hope of going down in a heroic blaze. Dwight was a master of subtle cruelty and psychological abuse, keeping physical violence to a minimum, but capable of it, nonetheless. Growing up with Dwight as a stepfather was similar to a shoplifter being sent to prison with the armed robbers---Jack learned to hone his techniques of deception by watching and sparring with a seasoned pro. Jack’s ultimate sting involved stealing school letterhead and transcript forms, writing bogus recommendation letters, and ultimately conning his way to a prep school scholarship, complete with an appropriate expensive wardrobe. The memoir is completely lacking in any sense of self-justification, rationalization or finger-pointing. I felt a good deal of sympathy for Jack, and that’s a tribute to the author’s skill, because reading about adolescent boys and their obnoxious or dangerous pranks usually just makes me really glad I didn’t have to raise one myself. One day I will undoubtedly carry on with his subsequent memoirs, Old School and In Pharoah’s Army, to learn how this sneaky conniving little whelp managed to become such a fine writer, and whether he turned out to be a human being I might like to meet.

This book won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1989; was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award that year; and received The Ambassador Book Award for Biography/ Autobiography in 1990. It is by way of being a classic of the memoir sub-genre of "Dysfunctional family/abusive childhood" stories.
Review written in January 2017
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LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
Quite a good read. The events of Wolff's life really come to life on the pages. The 1950's always seemed such an innocent time, but this book brings to light issues one does not normally equate with it. Toby's tale is dark at times but there are many humorous parts interspersed. Wolff suffered many
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frustrations and cruelties while he was growing up and this memoir tells his woes with such vividness and clarity. People who suffered those same woes will relate, and those that didn't will still find this memoir interesting.
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LibraryThing member ursula
One of the things I liked best about this memoir was its immediacy. Wolff's plain-spoken style kept me in the moment with his teenage self. His mother makes a series of bad decisions, one of which is moving to the middle of nowhere and marrying Dwight, a small-minded man with a tendency toward
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violence. Dwight's mistreatment and his mother's distance (she hardly figures in the story, although she was living in the same house) could have easily been used as excuses or explanations for Wolff's progressively more outrageous behavior, but he seems to look at himself with mostly clear eyes.

Frequently divorced from his own feelings and lacking almost any ability to empathize, the teenager often comes across as unlikable. But the older Wolff peeks through enough to let you know that somehow, he turned out all right in the end.
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LibraryThing member HankIII
I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. The prose was smooth; I just didn't particular find the characters pleasant enough to empathize with.
LibraryThing member YAbookfest
Tobias Wolff sets the stage for his memoir with an early line in the book, "It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck." Needless to say, they do not get rich.

Woff invites us into
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the adventures and many misadventures of his childhood with stories that are amusing, poignant, painful and always engaging. Toby and his mother go from one difficult situation to another, settling in for a long stretch with Dwight, an abusive drunk. Living in a harsh world, Toby tries to create his own reality, even taking a new name, Jack. He isn’t proud of who he is but seems unable to be the boy he would like to be. He is full of contradictions: a boy scout and a thief. He believes in his own lies and eventually they help him make his escape.

This Boy’s Life is an easy and entertaining read that is best suited to tenth graders. Teens, especially boys, will easily relate to Jack’s predicaments. The natural tone and frankness of the memoir provides an inspiring example for students writing autobiographical essays.
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LibraryThing member lynnmellw
Toby Wolff's own story as a young boy is one of a series of misfortunes that he is forced to overcome. I have little doubt this story would appeal to teenage boys as it is one adventure right after another.

I was really disappointed by the ending, which is why I rated this so low. I kept expecting
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his story to have a redemptive quality but alas it never materialized...perhaps that is in a sequel?
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LibraryThing member Borg-mx5
A wonderful memoir. Wolff's life is a tale of many lost young boys, who take an eternity to find their place in life. We grow up seeking, and too often find ourselves in the wrong places. Wolff finds a way out of his small town and disfunctional home. It does not mean he is out of the woods, only
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that he can see the light. A great read.
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LibraryThing member cannedhiss
*Contains Spoilers (but not many)*

*Personal (as opposed to scholarly) Review*

This memoir was fairly depressing. It was difficult for me to get through, because I felt like I was going to continually be disappointed by the people in the story. There was always a sense of hopelessness and dread
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looming in my mind, preventing me from wanting to pick it up again, afraid of what was going to happen next. In this way, I felt a kind of empathy for young Toby (or Jack as he preferred to be called as a boy).
I found it difficult to relate to any of the people in this story—even Jack. I kept wishing that his mom would get a clue or get a backbone or show some spine or something. I couldn’t understand why she kept subjecting herself and her child to the situations described. I’m sure that my lack of relatability is based upon my own life experiences. My mother was also a single parent. My father was even more worthless than Jack’s biological father. I faced many struggles and painful experiences due to the fact that my mother had to play two roles while I was growing up. Because this is fairly impossible for one human to do, one of the roles suffered. My mother was never able to be a mother, because she was forced to be the breadwinner and provider. Time and maturity have allowed me to see my childhood and adolescence much more objectively than when I was living them. It also provides me an enormous respect and sincere amazement for my mother’s accomplishments and success for being a single parent. I am easily reminded of her unique personality and character when reading a story such as This Boy’s Life.
The telling of the story—the writing itself—was mostly entertaining and quite clear. I was frequently reminded that the storyteller was much older during his telling of the story. This could simply be my own bias interpreting something incorrectly. The voice often felt too mature for the young adolescent I was learning about. By contrast, the details of this story, which were consistent, kept me there in the moment, when and where everything was happening. Perhaps Toby really was that smart when he was that young. I don’t feel like the author was trying to be deceptive in any way, so the voice doesn’t bother me. I really think it’s just a matter of style or aesthetic. Some details were extraordinary, especially the dialogue. There is absolutely no way I could recall dialogue from my youth the way Mr. Wolff has done. I have tried. It just isn’t in my memory. Whether this came directly from the writer’s memory or was somewhat improvised doesn’t make any difference to me. The intention feels honest and sincere. To me, there is no question of integrity. Plus, the way the dialogue is written into the story feels natural. It fits. There is no jolting away from the story.
The desolate tone of this memoir is nearly constant. Even when something amazing happens, like the chance for Jack to leave that awful town and get away from that terrible Dwight, the potential change and escape contain some fatal flaw that wrecks the whole deal. The way in which Wolff writes about his acceptance to Hill is tainted immediately. The reader isn’t even given an opportunity to be excited for young Toby. I’m not sure how I feel about the bleak foreshadowing Wolff occasionally offers. Perhaps he is trying to maintain a more consistent perspective or maybe it is an attempt to avoid dashing the reader’s hopes? In some ways, it leaves me feeling that further reading is futile. I don’t need to learn the details. I know it isn’t going to work out. Nothing has worked out for young Toby, aka Jack.
I do admire his (and here I pause, not really sure what to call it, not really certain of the most appropriate label) … courage (?). I had a few great opportunities when I was young and chickened out of all of them. I felt like I would never fit into the environments these new situations would create. I knew that I did not have the same kind of background and financial backing that other accepted candidates possessed. I feared the worst and decided to avoid facing those possibilities. I still feel a kind of regret when my mind wonders back to those decisions.
Overall, this is a well crafted story. The details and consistency are masterful. I just didn’t really enjoy it that much.
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LibraryThing member CynthiaBelgum
Follows the life of Tobias Wolff from about age 8 to about age 18, showing his travels with his mother from east to west coast, ever falling into worse circumstances. The book is well enough written but chronicles the soul of an empty person. When Wolff was speaking of his adult life, he was much
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more human and multidimensional. Perhaps he doesn't really remember who he was or how he felt. As the boy he describes, he is everything that is anathema in the male (and certainly not representative of anything to which to aspire). Increasing entropy.
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LibraryThing member kpickett
Young Toby Wolff loves traveling with his mother from town to town as she dates, and escapes the worst kind of men. The two hav adventures from Florida to Arizona to Washington when they end up in Chinook, WA living with a man named Dwight and his three children. But Dwight is not exactly a very
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good father figure as he takes Toby's (now calling himself Jack) profits from his newspaper delivery job and abuses him mentally and physically. I can't quite figure out why this book is so popular. The story wasn't very enticing for me, nor did I really care what happened to the most of the characters. I am not sure how much of these stories are true and how much are fictionalized but I found myself just wanting the whole thing to be over. I didn't like Old School when I first read it but in comparison to this I would much rather read that than This Boy's Life.
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LibraryThing member miriamparker
If there was a memoir that all other memoirs would have to live up to, it would be this one.
LibraryThing member trandism
Year is 1955. Toby runs away with his mother. Toby resents his name because he once met a girl having it. And what a nightmare it is to have a girly name. He changes it to Jack. They go luck hunting to Utah. Stepfather finds them and makes their life miserable. They flee. End up in Washington. But
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mother cannot escape abusive men. A middle-aged man, cautious at first, manages to convince her into marrying him. When they move to his house, to live with his 3 kids, hell brakes loose again. And Jack gets into trouble constantly. He's clever and courageous but fucks up way too often. His morale is low. School is hard. The town's society is medieval. Adults know only two ways to put loose kids on track. Religion and Abuse, moral and physical.This book is like Bukowski's Ham on Rye, 20 years down the road. Semi-autobiographical and on the same literaly level. Just like Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's childhood self, Toby (Jack) Wolff feels like a loser, acts like a loser and suffers like one. But somehow he makes it. An excellent sketch of rural America and a deep probe into a teenager's soul.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
This book was interesting, and I was glad to read it and see the similarities between this and Wolff's fictional Old School. However, I liked the writing of Old School and The Night in Question much better.
LibraryThing member nohablo
Good and zippy, with a great soft twang of nostalgia and hooliganism. Buuuut, also, not magic! For all its quiet strengths, THIS BOY'S LIFE doesn't have that glow of something great. It's not resounding, not heart-rending. Mad decent, but nothing fervid, nothing that haunts.
LibraryThing member dee_kohler
Wasn't too crazy about it when I read it long ago but it was good to measure Prep and the Tender Bar to it
LibraryThing member laurenryates
Toby Wolff was a troubled young man from an early age when his parents divorced. His father took his older brother and his mother took Toby, splitting the family up and only corresponding infrequently by letters between the two young boys. His mother moved them around frequently and eventually
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settled down with an abusive man, Dwight, whom she married quickly. Toby reinvents himself and insists that everyone call him "Jack". "Jack" started getting into trouble in school and around the house partly from having to live in such a hostile environment. He tries to run away, and eventually finds himself accepted into an elite school, where he meets his mentor, Mr. Howard. After a fight with his stepfather, his mother arranges for "Jack" to move in with his friend where he causes trouble, yet again. He then moves in with his brother and father, but flunks out of school and ends up joining the army and serving in the Vietnam war.

This was a very emotionally charged novel with a character that just seemed to take the wrong paths throughout his whole life. I really enjoyed reading about Toby, and how he created different identities and imagined different worlds to help himself cope with his troubled life. I think this is a good read for a young adult, especially a young boy.
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LibraryThing member johnjmeyer
Several friends recommended this book to me. It took forever for me to get to it. And I read it after I read his brother's biography of their father, The Duke of Deceit, a pathological liar as both sons turn out to be. The writing in both books is excellent, but unfortunately, I didn't like any of
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the characters in either book. If you have never contemplated what "white privilege" means, you can begin here and add a dose of "class privilege." The poor choices that Toby makes repeatedly get overlooked and bailed out if they ever create adverse consequences. He gets dozens of "second chances" that no person of color or one without at least the modicum of "upbringing" that permits artful dodging would get. Prevarication, bamboozling, and posturing abound. I agree with the reviewer below, who described most of the book as reflecting Toby's younger life as a picture of "increasing entropy."
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LibraryThing member benuathanasia
If it weren't free, I never would have touched it. Quite frankly, I'm still not certain why I never just quit it. Most of us have one of those relatives that came of age during the 60s/70s and who all seem to come prepackaged with the same obnoxious stories - fun "pranks" that would get you a stint
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in juvie today, them exercising their hatred of adults, lame Boy Scout stories that go nowhere, a beloved pet that had more personality than most of their friends, etc. That is what this book is. It is your senile father's ramblings of stories you got sick of hearing before you hit puberty.
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LibraryThing member acargile
This novel is a memoir, so it’s a true reflection of Tobias Wolff’s coming of age.

Toby has a dynamic life--one that moves him about, allowing him to live without rules and choosing his own standards. Toby’s father and brother went one way and Toby and his mother went another when they
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divorced. Unfortunately, Toby’s mother has trouble picking good men and getting well paying jobs. One man is abusive; they have to leave more than once to escape him. Toby also has a gun. Toby isn’t a kid that should have a gun.. He spends his afternoons alone with the gun “pretending” to shoot people walking down the road.

Much of the memoir takes place in Seattle where Toby’s mother gets a better job and rooms with other women. It’s determined that she should marry one of the men she’s met. How he acts with her and how he acts with Toby are completely different. He has children as well, so Toby finds it interesting to live with siblings again. They already know what to expect from their father and do little to help Toby when he comes to live at the house, which is in the middle of nowhere. His mother moves there later because Toby says all is fine instead of telling the truth.

I think this is a great memoir for teen boys or anyone who likes to push boundaries. Toby lies, manipulates, and breaks the law, which I cannot relate to. Furthermore, I can’t read his choices and justify his behavior because I have always been a pleaser and rule follower. I couldn’t decide how much his mother really knew him--did she just overlook his behavior thinking he would make better choices later? Did she not know what to do because she continually chose bad men? I don’t know. I should mention that the language is mature.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
This Boy's Life is author Tobias Wolff's coming-of-age memoir. After his parents divorced, Wolff remained with his mother while his older brother lived with their father. There was almost always an abusive man in his mother's life. She wasn't the only one who suffered from the abuse. Tobias (who
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preferred the name “Jack”) suffered, too. With little parental supervision, Wolff unfailingly hooked up with the wrong crowd with every move. Deceit became second nature to Wolff. He lied, stole, and engaged in other delinquent behavior, likely for self-preservation. While I was moved by Wolff's circumstances, I also couldn't help wondering how deeply ingrained these habits are in Wolff's character. Might he be an unreliable narrator of his own life story?
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