The Boy Lost, the Writer Found : THIS BOY’S LIFE A Memoir <i> by Tobias Wolff (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95; 288 pp.) </i>


“The first thing in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.”

Oscar Wilde’s remark is the epigraph to Tobias Wolff’s memoir of growing up. On the surface, it is a suitable choice. Wolff masked and masqueraded his way through a childhood and adolescence that might otherwise have unhinged him.

More deeply, though, it is the opposite of suitable; and far better. “This Boy’s Life” does not consort with its Wildean epigram; it wrenches it apart.


Wolff is the author of artful and highly crafted stories. The art in this memoir is its nakedness. It is stripped of pose; it has the courage to be a record, not of survival but of destruction.

Of course, we may know that Wolff is here, has married, teaches at Syracuse and has become a gifted and praised writer. But he lost himself before he ever found himself. This book is entirely about the loss, and not at all about any subsequent finding; save in the discipline and glitter of its pain.

Tobias’ mother took him along when she left his father and went to live with a lover in Florida. When he was 10, she left the lover, fearing of violence, and drove Tobias to Utah, where she intended to get rich speculating for uranium. The field was overcrowded, though, and she had to settle for an office job in Salt Lake City.

Roy, the lover, joined them there. Things went along fairly peacefully--though he would follow her jealously to work and burst into tears if he lost sight of her--until he began pressing her to have a baby. She and Tobias took a cab to the bus station, planning to go to Phoenix, but a Seattle bus came through first, and they caught it.

After a time in Seattle, they moved to Chinook, a town in the Cascade foothills, where Tobias’ mother married Dwight, a house painter. Here Tobias lived, continually tormented by his stepfather, until, toward the end of high school, he got a scholarship to the Hill School, a boarding establishment in the East.

The successive uprootings turned Tobias wary and elusive. But he had to cope with worse things. His real father remained in Connecticut with his older brother, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey Wolff, a novelist and critic, wrote a first-rate and successful book about this unstable father. Tobias never heard from him during several critical years; it was only long after he died, in fact, that he realized how abandoned he had felt all along.

The real hell of his young life, however, was provided by his stepfather. Roy, with his sporadic outbursts and instability, had been a kind of dress rehearsal for Dwight. Still, Roy showed a certain affection for the boy and had gave him a prized Winchester .22 rifle. Dwight, on the other hand, treated him as a perpetual interloper and rival.

“I was bound to accept as my home a place I didn’t feel at home in and to take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it,” Wolff writes.

Throughout his growing up, Tobias was a kind of hostage to this insecure, jealous and occasionally violent man. From the start, Dwight made it clear that he was determined to get the boy under his thumb. After a few drinks, the stepfather would take him for wildly careening rides in his car, while lecturing him for his laziness and rebelliousness.

“Dwight made a study of me,” Wolff writes. He compelled the boy to spend an entire winter of evenings painfully shelling horse-chestnuts; he made him work a paper route, took the money to “save” for him and spent it himself. He removed the cherished .22 rifle and traded it for an incontinent and gun-shy hunting dog that was ostensibly to belong to Tobias.

It growled and snapped at him, though, until he eventually lost control and beat it with a mop handle. After that, it followed him everywhere--much worse--and insisted on sleeping in his bed.

Dwight’s oppression was accomplished less by violence than by a hectoring and mediocre discourse. What Tobias felt was not terror but hopelessness. “I experienced it as more bad weather to get through, not biting, just dim and heavy.” When the boy sometimes dreamed of killing his stepfather, it was “mainly to shut him up.”

The portrait of Dwight is vivid and grisly, and the lighter touches only make it worse. When Tobias joins the Boy Scouts, Dwight, a former Eagle Scout, gets out his old badges, buys himself a spiffy new uniform and becomes an assistant scoutmaster. It’s partly to keep an eye on Tobias, but mostly it’s to outshine him.

To brighten the house, Dwight paints it all white, even the furniture. He sprays the Christmas tree with three coats of white; the needles fall off. The piano, a black walnut Baldwin, bothers him. “Kind of stands out, doesn’t it?” he says to the boy cheerfully; and paints it white, too; even the yellowed ivory keys.

Tobias, who also stands out, conceals himself to protect his own needles. Even before meeting Dwight he has, at each move, tried to take on a new identity. Arriving in Seattle, where he changes his name to Jack, he falls in with a group of semi-delinquents and gets in trouble at school. He welcomes the move to Chinook as a chance to start over as a serious student and “a boy of dignity.”

The Boy Scouts appealed to him because he could pretend to be the manly, energetic scout depicted in the manual. And when, at 16, he gets in touch with Geoffrey and his father, and they encourage him to try for a prep school scholarship, he constructs his most spectacular disguise.

His grades had been mediocre at school; his record in general was totally undistinguished. Through a friend in the school office, he obtains a stack of blank transcripts and stationery. He gives himself top grades and writes a series of glowing recommendations.

It works; with the encouragement of a local Hill alumnus, he is admitted. Predictably, he does badly there and eventually is expelled. When we last see him, he is about to join the Army and go to Vietnam--one more new life.

“This Boy’s Life” is a desperate story. The desperation is conveyed in a narration that is chilly and dispassionate on the whole, vivid in its detail, and enlivened by disconcerting comedy. But Wolff does not use stoicism--as it often is used--as a mask of its own. He punctuates it with passionate outbursts and incidents of a near-surreal resonance.

Reading his memoir can be like repeatedly closing one’s hand around a drowning man’s wrist, and feeling it repeatedly slip away. What bobs to the surface is the writer.

Take his remarkable account of falsifying his school record. He invented things, he tells us, but only those things that he thought of as essentially authentic. He didn’t write himself a football record; football didn’t interest him. On the other hand, he could imagine himself a swimmer. So he invented a swimming team and a coach who praised his prowess in the water.

“I wrote,” this writer--even then--writes, “without heat or hyperbole, 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 seems to me I saw, at last, my own face.”