This is the third memoir about “growing up” in the second half of the 20th-century I’ve read in a row (going to go for something very different next), but thankfully it was the one I enjoyed the most. An undercurrent of violence, poverty and petty criminality doesn’t diminish from this book’s overall enjoyable tone.
This Boy’s Life is Tobias Wolff’s memoir about his youth in Utah and Washington State in the late 1950s. He and his mother are fleeing a violent relationship of hers, heading West to make it big, but eventually she ends up attached to other unpleasant men. His mother works hard and tries hard, and eventually escapes from each of Tobias’ poor-quality step-fathers, but the real tragic note in the book is its representation of her struggle to be allowed autonomy, financial independence and a life where she is not pressured into marriage. She is very much portrayed as a victim of society, despite her strength and determination to earn for herself. Which she is able to do, by the end of the book. She is a strong woman, and it is refreshing to see an American literary book about the 50s where she is described and evoked as independent and powerful, but spared the patronising spelling-out of this in the text.
So, yes, it’s obliquely feminist, perhaps, and it’s also funny, Wolff is a charming narrator – writing about his boyhood escapades (not just drinking, smoking and making out, but joy-riding, vandalism, petrol theft, burgling his former stepfather, drunk driving and fraud) with energy, vigour, wit and an adult understanding of his own behaviour. He writes about academic failings, but at the same time he writes about elaborate schemes to falsify school records – Wolff wasn’t a stupid child, as is very clear, he just applied himself in less than normative ways. His stepfather, Dwight, is wonderfully unpleasant – a dictatorial, gun-loving alcoholic – and even when Wolff veers towards the less forgivable end of his lax moral code, the reader is always rooting for him, and happy when he succeeds and correctly saddened when he gets caught. One feels Wolff’s remorse, Wolff’s joy, Wolff’s excitement and Wolff’s exuberance. His boyhood life of scouting, driving, drinking and shooting amongst the mountains of rural America feels like an idyllic creation at times (not my personal idyll, but I’m sure it is someone’s), and the book as a whole is funny, engaging and enjoyable throughout.
Yes, I suppose it is another book about a cheeky young boy misbehaving, but it’s a particularly good one. Of the three memoirs I read this week, This Boy’s Life is the one I would recommend. Great stuff.