Double and Flight

Mark Illis

  • This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
    Bloomsbury, 292 pp, £12.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0274 9

Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is the story of two boys, Toby and Jack. Toby is an ‘A’ grade student, a boy deeply concerned about the world’s esteem, a loyal support to his mother, destined for Princeton like his brother Geoffrey. Jack is a liar and a thief, graceless and violent. Both are versions of Tobias Wolff himself, alternating throughout this exhilarating memoir of his childhood. It is the story, not of the American dream, but of what Wolff and others in the book settle for when the dream fails: hopefulness. Rosemary, Wolff’s mother, leaves Florida with him to escape a long affair with a violent man, and to make her fortune from uranium. Both she and her son are dreaming of transformation: ‘Everything was going to change when we got out West.’ Toby decides to call himself Jack at this point, hoping to discover the strength and competence of Jack London. No transformation occurs. The mining towns are packed, there are no jobs, and Roy, who Rosemary was trying to escape, has followed her, and is more madly jealous than ever. The old life continues in the new place. Rosemary tries again. She and her son, possessed by ‘the giddiness of flight’, escape to Seattle. Jack, with his new friends, now gets seriously into posing – the right hair, the correctly positioned cigarette, the right belt, the shirt with the right-length sleeves. At the same time, in a separate fantasy world, he is presenting himself as the son of Cap’n Wolff, owner of a fleet of fishing boats. Aged 11, he doesn’t have his mother’s ability just to get up and go.

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