FIRST IMPRESSIONS – *This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
This Boy’s Life, published in 2007, is already a classic among coming-of-age memoirs. It begins with Toby, age fourteen, and his mother as they run West to hide from an abusive relationship and make their fortune prospecting for uranium. “She was going to make up for lost time, and I was going to help her.” (p. 6)
When the uranium fields turn out to be more rumor than fact, and his mother’s abusive boyfriend shows up, they go on the run again, this time to Seattle. There, Toby falls in with the wrong group of boys. Enter the stepfather, Dwight, a man of thin and fragile bravado. The kind of man who swerves to hit animals on the road and goes into a pouting rage any time his authority is questioned. Dwight makes a cruel mission of “correcting” all he thinks is wrong with young Toby. This is the situation in which Toby finds himself as he navigates high school in Concrete, a small town east of Burlington.
Let’s start with the first sentence:
Wolff’s memoir begins, “ Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.”
As a writer, I like to “collect” first lines. This one does double duty: it grabs my attention immediately, while also managing to portray the essence of what the memoir is about — all in one sentence. We have the car boiling over “again,” which communicates desperation and poverty. We know Wolff is alone with his mother. And we know they are traveling a distance. At this point, we don’t know what they are running to or from, but we want to find out.
Overall, what I am most impressed with as I read this memoir, is Wolff’s ability to summarize characters and places, capturing their essence in just a few words. The writing is sparse, honest, and poignant, all at once.
Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from the first chapters —
A one-sentence characterization of his mother and his relationship with her that says it all:
“For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair.” (p. 4).
A picture of Sister James, when Toby was in catechism class:
“She was a woman of passion. Her square jaw trembled when something moved her, and as she talked her eyes grew brilliant behind her winking rimless glasses. She could not sit still. Instead she paced between our desks, her habit rustling against us. She had no timidity or coyness. Even about sex she spoke graphically and with gusto. Sometimes she would forget where she was and start whistling.” (pp. 9-10).
An effective characterization of place and culture:
“We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick, strangled tongues. Idlers with rotten teeth surrounded the car to press peanuts on the pretty Yankee lady and her little boy, arguing among themselves about shortcuts.” (p. 4)
A one-sentence description of a boarding house room he and his mother lived in:
It was the kind of room that B-movie detectives wake up in, bound and gagged, after they’ve been slipped a Mickey. (pp. 37-38).
An effective way to sum up a man’s character using physical description:
Dwight was a short man with curly brown hair and sad, restless brown eyes. He smelled of gasoline. His legs were small for his thick-chested body, but what they lacked in length they made up for in spring; he had an abrupt, surprising way of springing to his feet. (p. 63).
Communicating the attitude of the Vice-Principal using indirect dialogue:
He said that he was fed up with the delinquent behavior of a few rotten apples. They had names. Well, he wanted those names, and he was going to get them if he had to keep every single one of us here all night long. (p. 77).
Wolff also manages to portray himself as a fully fleshed-out character on the page — which I consider one of the most difficult accomplishments of a memoir writer. And he does so unsympathetically, without sugarcoating his own faults.
Consider the following excerpt, in which he portrays himself playing with his rifle:
“I drew a bead on whoever walked by— women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone— and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power over them, and at their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.” (p. 25).
Portraying himself and his friends:
We became self-important, cocksure, insane in our arrogance. We broke windows. We broke streetlights. We opened the doors of cars parked on hills and released the emergency brakes so they smashed into the cars below. (p. 61).
Summary of First Impressions
We can learn a lot by studying Wolff’s methods of description and characterization — the way he encapsulates how people move through the world, their socio-economic status, world views, and positive and negative attributes with a few carefully chosen words. How he dips into other points of view using indirect dialogue. How he creates plot from life.
And we will do just that. In my next post in this series, we’ll closely examine Wolff’s word choices and how these affect pace, tone, and overall voice. I hope you will join me. If you haven’t started yet, This Boy’s Life is *available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.
Please share: What are your first impressions of the writing of Tobias Wolff and This Boy’s Life?
My gift to you . . .
To help you start a book journal of your own, I’ve created a Book Journal template that I’d like to share with you. If you prefer to journal by hand, download the PDF version, print, and place in a binder. If you like to journal using your computer and you use Microsoft Word, download the Word version so you can make your entry directly onto the page.