This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, is a memoir about the author’s childhood, especially his teen years when he lived in small town Washington with his mother and nightmarish stepfather Dwight. It’s a book I like quite a bit, and it was made into a movie (with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio) that I like even better. In Pharaoh’s Army is a sort of sequel to This Boy’s Life, continuing Wolff’s life history into his young adult years.
It doesn’t quite pick up where This Boy’s Life ended. Except for the occasional brief allusion, it skips over his high school years back east after he (and his mother) escaped from Dwight. It primarily is about Wolff’s years in the army in Vietnam. It includes some material set in the U.S. before and after that that relates to his time in the army.
In This Boy’s Life, his mother was one of the three main characters, along with Wolff himself and Dwight. There was only minimal mention of his brother Geoffrey and his biological father, with whom he did not live during the This Boy’s Life years.
In Pharaoh’s Army contains considerably more about Geoffrey and their father, in the chapters set back in the U.S., whereas his mother is a much more minor character in this second book.
Geoffrey Wolff himself wrote a book—The Duke of Deception, which I have also read and written about—about their father, who was an audacious con man and petty criminal who painted himself as being big time when he was decidedly not. The Duke of Deception stands as a kind of companion piece to This Boy’s Life, allowing you to see both sides of one split family.
The portrayal of the father in In Pharaoh’s Army is very consistent with that in The Duke of Deception.
This Boy’s Life is not mentioned a single time in In Pharaoh’s Army (nor is The Duke of Deception). In fact, the years covered by This Boy’s Life, and for that matter Wolff’s childhood in general, get virtually no mention in this book. Dwight’s name never even appears.
So in that sense this is very much a standalone book. If you weren’t already aware of This Boy’s Life, you’d have no way of knowing Wolff had already written about his earlier life.
His two memoirs differ in structure. This Boy’s Life is a conventional book-length narrative told in chronological order. In Pharaoh’s Army is episodic, divided into short story-like chapters, not in chronological order. (Much of Wolff’s writing has in fact been in the short story format.)
One reaction I have in reading about Wolff’s life is how surprising it is that he became a quite successful and highly regarded writer and academic. (Geoffrey too went on to have a highly successful writing career, of a different type.) Yeah, he mentions that as a young person he hoped to become a writer, and that from time to time he worked on a novel, but that can be said of countless people, fewer than 1% of whom ever attain the status that Wolff has as a writer.
You wouldn’t think he’d be one of those fewer than 1%. He’s really something of a fuck up, and his father and stepfather role models are the type who are far, far more likely to influence a person toward failure rather than success, in whatever field. He’s not a terrible person or a moron in these books, but he’s almost always in some low level trouble. He couldn’t even make it through high school without being kicked out, and it’s not like his time in the military seems to have dramatically matured him into a responsible adult.
Maybe it’s just something in the genes in this family, since his brother pulled it off too.
Wolff is a Lieutenant in Vietnam in In Pharaoh’s Army. It sounds like he mostly is with South Vietnamese soldiers as an advisor. He isn’t the only American with that particular group of people—he has kind of a friend/sidekick American sergeant with him, and I’m not sure who else—but he interacts with Vietnamese allied with the U.S. more than he does with other Americans.
It sounds like the chain of command in that arrangement is kind of ambiguous. Probably it’s all quite unambiguous on paper, but in reality it seems there are a lot of games, customs, power plays, bluffs, schmoozing, etc. that influence who has to do what who says. Wolff seems to have considerable autonomy relative to even the highest ranking Vietnamese he works with, yet even the lowest ranking Vietnamese are able to get away with defying him to some degree.
Wolff is a solid writer; I’ve always appreciated his writing ability and style. I find that I connect just a bit better with his nonfiction than with his short stories, though in both his writing flows well and is intelligent and psychologically insightful. He has a knack for using just the right anecdotes told just the right way to convey the most understanding and emotion.
I felt engaged pretty much the whole time reading In Pharaoh’s Army, and felt like it gave me a pretty good sense of what it was like to walk in his shoes during these years, including what it was like to experience the chaos, idiocy, and cruelty of the Vietnam War.
There’s killing, blood, atrocities, and all the horrors you’d expect in an honest account of war. It’s interesting, though, that the specifics that most stuck with me after finishing the book are not the most sensationalist events like that, but an incident of cruelty to animals and an incident of inconsideration toward a child.
Maybe it’s kind of like how the bigger an evil is—say, the Holocaust—the harder it is to get your mind around it and to respond emotionally in a way proportional to its significance. Whereas something on a more manageable scale can get through to you and touch your heart.
In the first example, he and some of the Vietnamese soldiers find a stray puppy in an abandoned village. To his horror, as they build a fire they let him know they intend to cook the puppy for a meal. He tries to dissuade them. They hold the live puppy over the fire while it squirms and squeals in pain and terror, and they laugh at Wolff’s reaction and taunt him.
I think it’s one of those situations where he outranks them on paper and technically should be able to simply order them to cease what they’re doing, but where he’s not willing to push it because he isn’t confident events will play out by the book and his authority will be respected. He ends up bribing them—buying the puppy from them in effect in order to prevent them from eating it. It becomes his pet for the rest of his time in Vietnam.
Then at the end of his tour of duty [stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers], when the Vietnamese are giving him a sort of going away party (where the tradition of such occasions is that the “man of honor” is hazed and made the butt of practical jokes and such), they secretly snatch the puppy away and cook it and trick him into eating it.
So, yeah, it’s not like My Lai or something, but it’s still really evil in a disturbing way. It’s taking something good in someone—a desire to protect and care for a vulnerable animal—and using that as a way to hurt him. And not even an enemy, but supposedly someone on the same side.
The other incident starts with Wolff and his sidekick sergeant successfully hustling a big fancy TV from an American base. On their way back to where they are stationed, Wolff encounters a civilian Vietnamese woman that he has worked with in the past, with her young son. Something about her had always seemed intriguing to Wolff, but she had been impenetrable to him, refusing to reciprocate any effort he made to be friendly with her. Maybe she was secretly Viet Cong, who knows? Seeing her now outside a work environment he again attempts to strike up a conversation with her, with the same chilly lack of response from her.
He continues the interaction, seeking to draw out the youngster in a friendly manner, but the boy is shy and unresponsive. The mother notes curtly that he doesn’t trust Americans (any more than she does, apparently). Wolff picks up from what little they say that they are certainly not doing well financially, that they are having enough trouble securing the necessities of life, let alone any luxuries. He feels a surge of empathy and kindness toward them, and a desire to give them at least some small counterevidence of whatever negative impression they’ve developed of Americans. He offers them the TV that he and the sergeant have gone to so much trouble to secure.
At first she is unreceptive. Maybe she’s skeptical he’s even serious, maybe she just doesn’t want to acknowledge that there is any connection between them that would render such a gift appropriate. But he keeps pushing it, keeps assuring them that he really wants to do this nice gesture for them with no strings attached.
She sees that her son has gradually been convinced and now very, very much wants this TV, so ultimately she relents. He says that he will go and retrieve the TV from their vehicle, and they make arrangements as to where they will meet so he can give it to her. She has softened slightly toward him by the end of their encounter, and her son is elated at the prospects of their having their very own TV, which until a few moments ago had been unimaginable to him.
When Wolff rejoins the sergeant he isn’t quite sure how to tell him that he has agreed to give away their TV. They drive for a while and eventually he explains the situation, and where he agreed to meet the woman and her boy. The sergeant is not inclined to go along with this. Probably Wolff could get him to—whether because he outranks him or just by appealing to their friendship and asking it as a favor—but the more they talk about it, the less his promise seems important or binding, and he isn’t able to rouse himself to make the necessary effort to get the sergeant to turn back and give up the TV. So he never goes to the rendezvous point, never follows through on the gift.
No doubt the youngster is crushed, and he and his mom have all their worst impressions of Americans confirmed.
It’s a tiny little thing in a way—certainly, as I say, compared to the really horrific atrocities of war—but then again it’s not tiny. It’s disappointing a child for no particularly compelling reason after getting his hopes up, and that’s always a big deal.
This is also an example, by the way, of the fact that Wolff is quite willing in his autobiographical writings to show himself in a bad light. It would have been easy, and very tempting, to have left this incident out, or to have spun it in a way to make it seem more excusable, but he just lays it out there as it happened.
In both This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, Wolff doesn’t hide the fact that his young self was often quite a fuck up, and at times was a shit toward people. I think one of the purposes of the books is to be confessional, to show that even though he can’t change the past, at least he can be honest about it, at least he can show that he understands where he was wrong and that it still troubles him.
I’ll close with what I found to be one of the most striking quotes in In Pharaoh’s Army, as Wolff attempts to reenter society after returning from Vietnam, and finds that he is out of step with the people he is interacting with. It’s a reminder that among all the terrible things that war does, it can really warp the people who directly engage in it. You have to deny your humanity to a degree in order to deny the humanity of those you must be prepared to kill, and you may or may not ever get that humanity back:
I felt morally embarrassed. Why this was so I couldn’t have said, but a sense of deficiency, even blight, had taken hold of me. In Vietnam I’d barely noticed it, but here, among people who did not take corruption and brutality for granted, I came to understand that I did, and that this set me apart.