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.
Seattle failing her, Rosemary tries a more drastic change. She marries Dwight, who she knows is unsuitable, and they move on to join his family. Sick of his life as a precocious delinquent, Jack resolves to take the opportunity to start afresh too, to present himself as a ‘scholar-athlete’ in his new environment. ‘I recognised no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others. This is an idea that died hard, if it ever really died.’ It is an idea that is at the centre of the book. Jack/Toby never feels he has arrived at his true self, his identity is always shifting. Dwight presents him with endless chores, and endless analyses of his faults. Wolff resists the temptation of gaining retribution with his writing, of lapsing into self-pity or bitterness. Dwight is not a caricature; he too, though brutal, is infected with the same stubbornly hopeful nature as Rosemary and Jack. Before Rosemary comes to join them he paints his house white, all of it, down to the ivory keys of the piano. He is hoping, in vain, for a blank sheet, a fresh start.
Mistreated by Dwight, Jack finds escape routes. He cherishes the Scouts for their uniform and their ordered world, he dreams of flight to Mexico with his stepbrother, or to Alaska financed by slowly-accumulated stolen small change, and he joins another group of outcasts at his new school. The flights and fantasies are not confined to the central characters. Everyone Wolff comes across has a vision of their life as it ought to be lived, which real life cannot match. It is this territory between real life and dreams that the book explores. Rosemary at one point becomes involved in politics, ‘stirred by Kennedy’s hopefulness’.
As Dwight becomes more brutal, continually bullying Wolff and threatening his mother’s life when she contemplates escape, Toby reemerges from Jack and, at his brother’s suggestion, applies for scholarships to top prep schools. In doing so, he consults The Status Seekers, a meticulous guide to the clothes, clubs and colleges of the upper class, written apparently as an attack on them, but universally used by the hopeful in order to imitate them. Toby’s aspirations, with Jack’s dreadful school record, seem doomed to failure, but he gets into a prep school by forging his records. ‘I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth. That was what I thought I was writing – the truth. As if starting his memoirs early, Toby creates the version of himself that he feels is most appropriate, finds his identity in this ‘splendid phantom’ who has realised all his hopes.
There are more moves before Toby reaches prep school. He lives for a while at the house of another High School outlaw, Chuck. Chuck, who chats with his highly religious father, helps his mother with the dishes, is generous to his friends and is idolised by his sister, regularly gets into drunken, self-destructive rages. His capacity for debauchery is only matched by his capacity for repentance. In one of Wolff’s most telling memories, Chuck is faced with the choice of a charge of statutory rape or a shotgun marriage. He resists marriage. He has a vision of an ideal woman he is going to marry, a vision which includes an ideal man: ‘the husband Chuck was saving for his wife was a man just dying to see the error of his ways.’ Chuck is a minor character, but Wolff is lovingly precise about him. The world he describes is inhabited by people who live lives they don’t believe in, saving all their best qualities for some other life which never materialises.
Towards the end, with Toby on his way to prep school and Rosemary once again looking forward to a new job in a new place, Wolff says: ‘We were ourselves again – restless, scheming, poised for flight.’ In the last pages he reveals briefly, almost dismissively, what lay ahead. Toby went to stay with his father, who had a breakdown almost immediately. Dwight tracked down Rosemary, tried to strangle her and almost succeeded while Toby, hearing a struggle outside the door, ignored it. At the prep school, out of his depth, he becomes ‘one of the school wildmen’, gets expelled and joins the Army. And so to Vietnam.