Bad Dads

Zachary Leader

  • In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of a Lost War by Tobias Wolff
    Bloomsbury, 210 pp, £12.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1919 6
  • Tallien: A Brief Romance by Frederic Tuten
    Marion Boyars, 152 pp, £9.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 7145 2990 7
  • Roommates: My Grandfather’s Story by Max Apple
    Little, Brown, 241 pp, £12.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 316 91241 7

Personal identity, according to Locke, is a creation of memory. The American writer Tobias Wolff has already published one volume of memoirs. Now, at the age of 49, he has produced a second. Who can blame him? His father was a conman and impostor: Arthur Samuels Wolff, aka Arthur Saunders Wolff III, aka Saunders Answell-Wolff III, the ‘Duke’ of Tobias’s brother Geoffrey’s memoir, The Duke of Deception (1979).

As the memoirs of both Wolff brothers show, the father spent his life shedding past selves and conceiving new ones – as Unitarian, then Episcopalian, as Groton schoolboy, Yale man (in Skull and Bones), Royal Air Force fighter pilot, OSS officer (in Yugoslavia with the Partisans), sapper in the French Resistance. Each was a lie. The ‘Duke’ was in fact a Jew from an affluent middle-class family: he had been kicked out of a series of decreasingly respectable prep schools (none of them Groton), flunked out of the University of Miami (not Yale, not even Dartmouth) and never served in the military at all. Bluff, good-looking, immaculately and expensively dressed, full of charm, he spent his life bilking shopkeepers, sponging off friends, drinking, running up bad debts, lying about his past and his qualifications. Family life is remembered by the sons as a series of abrupt shifts of circumstance, mysterious exits, evictions, repossessions. The father’s heavy gold signet ring bore the inscription ‘nulla vestigium retrorsit,’ which he translated for his sons as ‘Don’t look back.’

In This Boy’s Life (1989) Tobias Wolff looks back to the late Fifties and early Sixties, to his childhood and adolescence, a period of separation from the father. This period, though, was hardly settled, with mother and son constantly on the move (when the parents divorced, the older brother, Geoffrey, stayed with the father), wandering from Florida to Arizona to the Pacific North-West. The first memoir ends with the delinquent Tobias, or Jack, as he called himself, forging high school transcripts and letters of reference and winning a scholarship to the Hill School in Pennsylvania.

‘I wrote without heat or hyperbole,’ Wolff recalls, ‘in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.’ Not surprisingly, Wolff flunked out of Hill (after an undistinguished career at Concrete High in Concrete, Washington, smack in the heart of Raymond Carver country). On the penultimate page of the book, he enlists in the Army, eager to embrace ‘the clear life of uniforms and ranks and weapons. It seemed to me when I got there that this was where I had been going all along, and where I might still redeem myself. All I needed was a war.’

The Vietnam War? It is a telling feature of the new memoir that though it is set in the mid-Sixties, political controversy barely figures, or figures only implicitly, either in Wolff’s decision to enlist (and become an officer in the Special Forces), or in his account of his experiences during the war itself. Though the memoir has a right-on title, and offers first-hand accounts of battle, including the 1967 Tet Offensive, as well as assorted close shaves, military brutalities and stupidities, it bears little resemblance to earlier Vietnam narratives, with their high-octane intensities. Often funny and observant about others, it is nonetheless mostly introspective, deliberative, low-key. ‘I had been shot at,’ Wolff tells us. ‘More accurately, shots had been fired in my direction from afar, without effect on me or the men I was with.’ ‘It was one of those paternal gestures that excited my scorn except when they fell on me.’ ‘Isn’t it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people’s houses apart?’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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