Tobias Wolff: This Boy’s Life


I once went to a writing seminar where the teacher gave us the opening of Tobias Wolff’s autobiography and asked us what we thought happened next*:

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn.  The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”

The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around.

By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay in its back among the boulders.  It looked pitifully small.  A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to inspect the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff’s edge. No one spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.  (1-2)

First published in 1989, This Boy’s Life is a classic of American autobiography.  Has anyone ever captured better that strange hinterland an intelligent adolescent boy lives in, a combination of boredom, recklessness, and emotions too troubling to examine too closely? Here is Toby after he and his friends have stolen petrol from a struggling farmer so they can go joyriding. They have been forced by the other boy’s father to come back to the farm and apologise:

I didn’t need to see the tears in Mr Welch’s eyes to know that I had brought shame on myself. I knew it when we first drove into the farmyard and I saw the place in the light of day. Everything I saw thereafter forced the knowledge in deeper. These people weren’t making it. They were near the edge, and I had nudged them that much farther along. Not much, but enough to take away some of their margin. Returning their gas didn’t change that. The real harm was in their knowing that someone could come upon them in this state and pause to do them injury. It had to make them feel small and alone, knowing this – that was the harm we had done. I understood some of this and felt the rest. (246)

In the same way Toby part understands, part feels, how things are for his mother; she’s one of those gallant, pretty women of the 50’s who has to choose between a poorly-paying office job and the shaky shelter of marriage to a petty bully. He adores her, but he’s a teenage boy with a rampant will that drags him along, often into trouble that makes trouble for her.

Wolff is a beautiful, clean writer, with a lovely rhythm. He’s audacious.  He’ll make you laugh, and gasp with recognition.


*I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to read it for yourself.   And chase up his great story Bullet In The  Brain, which we’ve referred to in other posts.

4 thoughts on “Tobias Wolff: This Boy’s Life

  1. Somehow this writer has passed me by over the years – not sure why, but then again I guess we all have various gaps in our reading for various reasons. Am I right in thinking this was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio? I recall seeing it when it was released back in the ’90s.

  2. I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t want to see it anyway. It’s such a marvellous piece of work in its own right, so individual in its voice that I can’t imagine not being disappointed.

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