This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff

This Boy's Life

This Boy’s Life is an autobiographical tale of author Tobias Wolff’s childhood. Wolff grew up to be a critically acclaimed writer, but he certainly didn’t have a promising start in life.

Wolff’s parents divorced when he was young, and he went off with his mother Rosemary while his older siblings stayed with his father. His father has only a minimal role in the book. He soon remarried—into money. At times Wolff (named “Toby,” but for a while deciding he’d rather be called “Jack”) has fantasies about how great his father is or how much better his life could be if his father played a larger role in it—a not uncommon thing for a child of divorce—but to the limited extent toward the end of the book that he gets to interact more with his father and test this perception, he is, not surprisingly, disappointed, and maybe understands that his mother wasn’t completely off base in divorcing the guy and being skeptical of any proposed reuniting of the family.

The book opens not with the divorce but sometime later, after Rosemary and Toby have been living with a post-marriage boyfriend of hers, an abusive loser of a guy who she decides to leave. She and Toby hit the road to seek their fortune. Along the way she has a few more relationships with men—including a resumption with the aforementioned abusive boyfriend, who tracks her down and begs her to take him back, and soon enough returns to his abusive behavior—but none of them are at all promising.

They end up in Seattle for a time, with Rosemary taking whatever work she can find to scrape by as a single mother, and Toby drifting into being something of a nickel and dime juvenile delinquent.

As Wolff the adult observes looking back, Rosemary was the type of woman who had a big problem with falling for one abusive guy after another, while at the same time going to the opposite extreme to break the cycle of abuse by bending over backwards to avoid doing anything harsh or punitive toward her son. She let him get away with just about anything, trusted him even after he had shown that he’d lie about anything and everything when it was in his self-interest to do so, and defended him to others when he was in the wrong.

Soon she becomes more receptive to the idea of settling down in another marriage. Up to that point she’d been a mostly happy, optimistic woman when on her own with just her son—a little kooky maybe, prone to get-rich-quick schemes and dubious risks, but certainly a life-loving, life-affirming person. But the financial struggles and the frustration with Toby’s increasingly bad behavior eventually grind her down to where being on her own seems less and less like an exciting adventure.

I really get the impression that second factor was the more important one. She knew at some level that throwing all love and no discipline at Toby wasn’t working, and that acting alone she was unlikely to deviate from that style of parenting, so she concluded her son needed a father, or at least some strong male authority figure in his life.

Enter Dwight, the villain of the story.

Rosemary is by no means swept off her feet by Dwight, but he comes across to her as at least somewhat more stable, well-mannered, and non-abusive than the guys she’s used to, so she is willing to listen when he starts talking of marriage.

But since in her mind the relationship between any potential mate and Toby is at least as important as the relationship between that mate and her, she arranges for Toby to spend a semester living with Dwight and his family (he’s a single father with two daughters and a son) out in the sticks in rural Washington, as a sort of trial run. If that goes well, she figures it will be best for her then to marry Dwight.

An interesting dynamic is at work, where Rosemary and Toby both seemingly would prefer the other to put a stop to things before traveling too far down this path. Rosemary has misgivings about Dwight—she’s pretty clearly not in love with him to any significant degree—but she’s willing to make the sacrifice of marrying him if she believes it’s best for her son. Toby if anything has even greater misgivings about Dwight, but he feels guilty about being the cause of a lot of his mother’s problems, and he’s willing to make the sacrifice of entering into another painful family situation rather than mess up his mother’s chance to remarry.

Things do not go well between Dwight and Toby. Dwight is the kind of person who can be on his best behavior in small doses when he’s trying to impress someone, and indeed can even be charming if you like that type, but soon enough he shows his true colors as a brute. He’s far from a loving, ideal father toward his own kids, but he’s much worse toward Toby. He has convinced himself—not completely unreasonably given Toby’s behavior and given what Rosemary has said about Toby—that his role is to be the stern disciplinarian, to “scare straight” Toby for his own good.

Really, though, that’s more rationalization than reality; he’s the kind of cruel person who delights in mistreating someone under his control, especially someone whose very existence, as the son of his girlfriend, he resents as inconvenient.

But the aforementioned dynamic remains at work. It’s obvious to Rosemary that her son had a rough go of it with Dwight in one way or another, but he doesn’t articulate any details and meticulously avoids saying “Please don’t marry him. He’s a monster, and I’ll be absolutely miserable if we have to live with him,” even though that happens to be the truth. He grimly agrees to the marriage, even as Rosemary gives him every opportunity to veto it, which she almost certainly is rooting for him to do, though she can’t admit she wants out any more than he can.

So she marries Dwight and it is, predictably, a nightmare for her and Toby both, though as the book is Wolff’s memoir it focuses more on Toby’s suffering. Dwight is horrifically emotionally abusive toward them, and at times crosses the line to being physically abusive with them as well, more so toward Toby (at least that Wolff knows of, or chooses to share in the book), and more so when Rosemary is not around to witness it.

The dysfunctional relationship between Dwight and Toby dominates the story, but we also learn about other aspects of Wolff’s life at the time, including his friendships and misadventures with his peers, mostly various low level hooligans, but including a particularly close relationship with a boy named Arthur, who decidedly does not run with that crowd. Arthur has all the stereotypical signs of the budding homosexual, but in a time and place where being gay was completely unacceptable, including to Arthur himself. So he vehemently denies any such assumptions or rumors about himself, and indeed beats up Toby for calling him a “sissy” shortly after they meet, and even for a time somehow obtains a girlfriend, for whom he clearly has no significant feelings and treats with disdain.

Wolff’s story resonates deeply with me. I first was introduced to it via the movie version of this book, and I then read the book years later.

Like most people, I usually believe the book is better than the movie when a movie is based on a book, though with notable exceptions such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (a decent book, and an extraordinarily good movie) and To Kill a Mockingbird (an excellent book, and an even better movie). On This Boy’s Life I’m mixed.

Certainly there are things to prefer about the book. Wolff is a fine writer, and he provides consistently compelling vivid descriptions, gives more detail than is possible in the movie, and includes various insightful psychological remarks about the characters and relationships of his childhood.

But the movie has something that the book doesn’t: Robert De Niro as Dwight. In my opinion it’s one of the greatest performances of De Niro’s illustrious career. De Niro’s Dwight is so creepy, so ominous, and at the same time so comically pitiful that you can’t take your eyes off him. As much as I’m affected reading about Dwight in the book, seeing him in the flesh via De Niro’s portrayal gives me a chill and makes me laugh–nervously, for the most part–to a greater degree. For that matter Ellen Barkin as Rosemary (though called Caroline in the movie for some reason), and a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Toby are excellent as well. Put a gun to my head and I’d probably have to pick the movie over the book, though as I say there is plenty one could cite in support of either over the other.

The main reason the book—and movie—affects me as deeply as it does on a personal level is no mystery. I had a mostly very negative childhood, primarily because of the role of my father in my life. Dwight reminds me of my father to a scary degree.

The thing is, though, in terms of specifics there’s really not that much overlap. They weren’t physically similar, they didn’t have similar occupations, I gather they didn’t have similar upbringings. Dwight’s a drinker, sometimes to excess; my father was almost a complete non-drinker. Dwight smoked cigarettes, I’m not sure how often; my father chain smoked cigars. They lived in different parts of the country. The family structures were much different; Rosemary was Dwight’s second wife and Toby was his stepson. And on and on.

Yet there’s something about their essence that is extremely similar, enough to make me tense up and feel it physically when I read this book or certainly when I watch De Niro embody Dwight.

They’re almost too petty, too absurd, to come across as truly evil. They’re the kind of people who haven’t achieved much in life, aren’t all that highly regarded by those around them, and have kind of a paranoid sense that life hasn’t treated them fairly, that they’re being victimized and held back by unjust societal forces, much like today’s typical white male Fox “News” viewer. Their resentment about their lot in life, their ineffectuality, and the vague unfairness of it all then gets translated into petty dictator behavior within the family, the one sphere that they can control, or at least fancy that they can. They compensate for their insignificance by adopting an attitude of swaggering superiority and inappropriate braggadocio. Though wrong stunningly often, they can never admit error. They darken every room or life they enter.

Wolff as a writer, and then in the movie version De Niro as an actor, do a remarkable job capturing the kind of person my life was dominated by for seventeen years—the eccentric, petty, cruel day-to-day irrationality that is at the center of such a person’s being.

Though Toby is the narrator and we learn the most about him, and Dwight is a very attention-grabbing character, this is Rosemary’s story as well.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, and a good portion of that concerns Rosemary. I found myself very sympathetic to her and to her efforts to make the most of the limited choices life offered her.

Most of the story takes place in the 1950s, so prior to the bulk of the significant changes brought on by the women’s movement. Reading about the lives of ordinary women back then gives you a sense of why a women’s movement was necessary, and remains necessary. Law and custom so constrained the educational, occupational, and social options available to women that simply to live a life where you could provide for yourself and where you were treated with some decent level of respect was not available to many of them.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not like Rosemary was unaware of the downside of marrying Dwight. Yes, some of the specifics came as a surprise when he was able to relax and not always be on his best behavior as he had been during the courtship phase, but she sensed going in that he was a seriously flawed person, and she knew she didn’t love him in the way one would wish were a prerequisite for marriage. But she went forward with it because the other options seemed even worse to her.

She’d tried any way she knew how to make it work with just her son, but all she saw happening was him getting more and more out of control. She finally succumbed to the conventional wisdom that putting him back in a stable family environment with a father figure—any father figure—was necessary to avoid losing him to a life of more serious crime and delinquency.

In fact, inflicting the horrible Dwight on her son was an awful choice, but you can totally understand why someone in her shoes would do what she did.

Late in the book, roughly the same dynamic plays out with other characters. Toby’s stepsister (i.e., one of Dwight’s two daughters) Pearl makes what seems from the outside a nonsensical marital choice. She had been involved with a local boy whom she was in love with, but who didn’t seem to be headed for all that promising of a future, so she allows that relationship to wither. Instead she decides to marry a clean cut older fellow from Seattle, with a better education and a more stable career ahead of him.

The thing is the guy—at least as Wolff presents him—is a colossal prick. He’s a hardcore Seventh Day Adventist, and he makes no secret of the fact that anyone who isn’t is inferior to him. He’s blatantly disrespectful to his fiancée, whom he already treats as his property, and when she brings him home to meet the family he’s so arrogant and argumentative that he triggers the miracle of getting them all to agree on something, namely that she’s throwing her life away by marrying him.

Even Dwight finds him insufferable. Multiple times he drives down to where Pearl’s now living and begs her to reconsider. At no point does she give any indication she’s in love with the guy, yet she goes ahead with the marriage. She just surrenders younger than Rosemary did to the reality that as a woman she’s not going to be able to live other than dependent on a man, and in choosing a man to marry (i.e., enslave herself to) she needs to make a hardheaded decision based on that person’s having the wherewithal to provide a home for her to be a housewife in and to support a family, and not be swayed by emotional and personality factors.

The book reads to me like Wolff’s extended apology to his mother. I think his heart was in the right place even as a kid, and he always loved Rosemary in a way he didn’t love anyone else in his life, but he was very immature and lacked the tools to be a good person. He was a liar, he was a thief, he was irresponsible with guns (and cars and alcohol), he was unreliable, and he hurt and mistreated people, including the effeminate Arthur who for all intents and purposes was his best friend during the Dwight years. But I think the one he most regrets letting down is Rosemary.

The book is his way of confessing all his bad deeds, acknowledging the damage he did, explaining it all as best he can.

Sometimes when a writer presents himself in a negative light, it’s a kind of reverse boasting, a posturing where he takes a weird kind of pride in insisting how bad he was. But I don’t see that here. I see a saddened and baffled person wondering how he could have done some of the things he did, and why he wasn’t capable of rising to the occasion and manifesting stronger character.

I think Wolff would give anything to be able to go back and change the past, to get back to a “just the two of us against the world” relationship with his mom, hitting the open road, taking chances, trying different cities and people, and always supporting each other along the way. Because at times that’s just what his childhood was like, but more often it fell woefully short of that ideal of love and adventure.

And he knows it fell short because of him. Rosemary held up her end of the bargain. She did everything she could do for them to have that kind of life. But he didn’t do his part. He wasn’t there for her with anything like the consistency she was there for him.

At one point when Rosemary is overwhelmed dealing with Dwight, and Toby’s immature behavior is doing nothing but further weakening her position, she snaps at him, “You’re not helping anymore!” and you sense how deeply that cuts him, maybe even more deeply looking back on it as an adult than it did at the time.

At least the story has a happy ending of sorts. Rosemary and Toby finally escape from Dwight. Toby continues to screw up for a while, but eventually grows up and becomes an accomplished writer and academic. Rosemary becomes a career woman in Washington, D.C. (where Dwight tracks her down and attempts to strangle her—that’s in the book but not the movie). Reading between the lines, one gathers that Wolff and his mother have an amicable relationship in spite of their (mostly his) errors of the past.

Apology accepted apparently.

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