“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”
Tobias Wolff is right, don’t you think? That’s a pretty good description of one facet of childishness (or immaturity: but that’s another story). This flash of insight comes toward the end of This Boy’s Life, his clear-sighted memoir of his teenage years in the Pacific Northwest. There was pain aplenty for the young Tobias, and little help dealing with it. Of course it felt like a necessary feature of his life — that’s the way it works.
The dysfunctional-childhood memoir is not a favorite of mine, but This Boy’s Life has tugged at my sleeve so often now that when it showed up again, I succumbed. Maybe you remember the background: Duke and Rosemary Wolff divorced in the 1950s and split up their sons. The elder, Geoffrey, stayed in the East with his father who turned out to be a con man. His memoir/portrait of his father, The Duke of Deception, was published first, in 1979, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The younger son, Tobias, went West with his mother. This Boy’s Life covers the period when they lived in the Pacific Northwest with a deeply unpleasant character whom Rosemary eventually, reluctantly, married. (The film version came out in 1993 and starred Leonardo DiCaprio.) Dwight is a malicious micro-manager of his stepson’s life: “Some of the chores [he assigned] were reasonable, some unreasonable, some bizarre as the meanest whims of a gnome setting tasks to a treasure seeker.”
What strikes me as unusual about Tobias Wolff’s book is his attentive reconstruction of his adolescent self. He’s a bad apple and knows it, yet has no idea how to redeem himself. There’s a poignant scene where a well-meaning priest tries to get through to him and the young Tobias simply cannot relinquish all that’s left to him: a cobbled-together self-respect based on appearing impervious to hurt.
There’s a train-wreck logic to the book. We see Rosemary Wolff making one bad choice after another, and Tobias following suit. He picks the wrong friends, skimps on his studies, shop lifts, vandalizes, drinks — it all seems inevitable. But never for a moment did I consider ending the misery by putting the book down. The writing is lovely, clear and brisk with occasional bursts of the picturesque. One scene I bet made it to the movie is the Christmas when Dwight cut down a blue spruce and then spray painted it white, killing it. The family celebrates amid the falling needles.
But I think I also finished the book to keep faith with the young Tobias. His adult self, the author, treats him with the grave respect the boy so desperately craved. Staying with him seems like the least the reader can do, and it’s deeply rewarding.