Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Review: This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Title: This Boy's Life

Author: Tobias Wolff

Year: 1989

Rating: 5/5

Review written for: Me

Summary: Tobias Wolff takes us through his teen years as 'Jack' while on the road with his mother, striving to find something better for themselves and a future not so bleak.

Review: I first became aware of Tobias Wolff's story as a young teen. I caught the 1993 film adaptation of this book, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, and was amazed to discover that everything I watched was based on true events.

Wolff's memoir of his teen years is a wonderful tribute to a time that most affected his adult life. This Boy's Life begins with Wolff and his mother travelling across the country with dreams of making it rich by finding uranium. It is a glowing, idealistic dream which distracts them from the fact that they are running away from Mrs Wolff's abusive boyfriend (who soon tracks them down).

After a few years of settling from place to place, Mrs Wolff falls in love with a man named Dwight who insists they move in with him and make a happy family. Dwight's abusive and domineering demeanor soon starts to show though, and Wolff soon discovers that if he wants any happiness, he has to work for it himself.

This Boy's Life was such an interesting read. Young Wolff isn't a perfect teen. In fact, he's a troublemaker. For every school he attends, he always seems to find the bad crowd to hang around with. Even Dwight's strict sense of discipline isn't enough to whip him into shape completely. I always enjoy narrators who aren't perfect. Toby is far from perfect. He's the kind of neighbourhood kid you'd have to watch out for; The kind of kid who'd throw rocks through your windows or steal the fenders from your car.

But he's likeable. His narration is packed with his inner thoughts that insist he hates the way he is and doesn't understand why he does what he does. He wants to better himself and go to prep school and a good college, like his father and older brother before him.

It's his lack of interest in school and his penchant for troublemaking that's putting a stop to this. He also begins to notice some of Dwight rub off on him - an angry attitude quick to put anyone down who'll do better than him.

This Boy's Life captures an adolescence so perfectly. The dreams that we have about our future and how they are altered by circumstance. Wolff is now a successful, award-winning writer but was told that he'd never amount to anything. I love hearing success stories. Teenage tearaways are never given any encouragement. If the traditional school system fails them, teachers give up and never expect to hear from these pupils again. It was the same in my school - If you didn't get A's from day one, teachers didn't bother. When these pupils can completely change their lives with newfound confidence, it makes me smile to think of how hard they've worked for it.

This Boy's Life was an excellent read about life in the '50s/60s. Being a teenager while faced with life decisions and an abusive homelife is an interesting world to dive into. I found the relationship between Toby and Arthur Gayle an interesting one. The two initially meet by getting into a fight over Toby calling Gayle a 'sissy'. They soon become the best of friends though Wolff is quick to hide this friendship because of how 'different' Gayle is - effeminate, sarcastic, smart. Wolff even mentions that one afternoon they find themselves kissing but never speak of it again. Small instances like this are perfect details for the kinds of crazy things we do during our teens that we never really understand - We just want to experiment with everything while trying to discover who we are.

I'll be on the lookout for more books by Wolff. I read his short story, Bullet in the Brain, while in uni and loved it so I look forward to getting more and more into his writing as the year goes on. I'd recommend this in a heartbeat - especially if you like teen reading. This is like a YA book but real and full of the little details that fiction would miss.  


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I loved this book, and the movie too!

serendipity_viv said...

I have never heard of either book or film. I live in ignorance far too much. It sounds really good and I love books set in the 50's/60's. I just love that time period.

Ceri said...

Diane - Me too. :D

Vivienne - If you love books set in the 50s/60s, give it a go. It has all the idealism of post-war America. :)

The Bookworm said...

this sounds good, another one to add to my TBR.
I havent seen the film yet.
great review!