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This Boy's Life: A Memoir Paperback – March, 2000
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This Boy's Life is exactly that: a story of a "Prodigal Son" who, after causing much harm to the society around him--with much harm having been done to him--not only became a better man, but also met a better life with his changed, saved heart from above!
I'll compare the novel version of This Boy's Life to the 1993 film adaptation, starring young adult Leonardo DiCaprio as the book's author, Tobias "Toby" Wolff, a literature professor and, in addition, author of many other books and short stories. I saw the film before I read the book, which made both easier to understand, and I'll make sure I don't spoil anything for you!
In This Boy's Life, we not only see most of the same scenarios presented in the film, but many "in-between" stories as well, not present for the film: Tobias Wolff's Catholic upbringing, and the impact it had in eventually reforming Mr. Wolff, after he had traded in his religion (not officially, but by means of being a non-practicing Catholic) for popularity--and authority--among his classmates and "friends": some of whom remained true to the end, and others of whom didn't. We learn more detail of his mother Rosemary's relationship with her stalkerish boyfriend Roy--how the relationship began, how it ended, and the details behind the chemistry Ellen Barkin and Chris Cooper shared onscreen: chemistry that was very profound on behalf of the two actors, but partially incomplete when it comes to restriction in detail that film knows, which literature doesn't. As Mr. Wolff reveals, his parents were divorced at a very young age, and his childhood was by no means easy, only getting to speak with his father and brother Geoffrey on very rare occasions (more as he became an adult) and dealing with the most mentally unstable father figures around him, including Roy and, more notably, Dwight: the monster Robert De Niro recreated for us on the big screen with his "tough guy" looks and personality, previously revealed beforehand in films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and much, much more.
And it is in the telling of young Mr. Wolff's and Rosemary's relationships with Dwight that make This Boy's Life a page-turner--hard to put down when you have work to do and impatient to get back to when you're reading a part of the book that does not at all talk about Dwight. For me, the secret to this enjoyment was thinking of the DiCaprio-De Niro chemistry as Wolff-Dwight, and remembering what they have in common: they are both, next to Harvey Keitel, the most frequent moles of Martin Scorsese! Yet, their characters are completely different from one another--the former of which was not yet true of DiCaprio when the book and film were released.
I give accolades to Tobias Wolff for the simple fact that, as the author, he makes the "two sides of the story" between himself and Dwight clearly and perfectly known. Dwight was, by no means, a man who deserved the benefit of the doubt: his ways of correction were very evil, as Mr. Wolff reveals in profound detail. However, Wolff himself was in need of correction, as a so-called "juvenile delinquent," and it is this so-called truth which makes the details of Wolff's relationship with Dwight so fascinating to read: we know both men were wrong, yet we're on Wolff's side--we empathize with him, because we were (or are) young and know what it means to succumb to peer pressure--and we know that, underneath it all, Wolff had a truly good heart, even if it was not necessarily applied. We all know who the hero turns out to be, which another plus to the true story is, and so we can enjoy without feeling guilty: we all know how it ended and, as one of my favorite Christian authors, Randy Alcorn, has said; the conflict we avoid in life is the same conflict we enjoy in story! Yes, in This Boy's Life; Tobias Wolff owns up to all his faults as a youth; and not only gives us a more honest picture of himself, but also a more honest picture of Dwight: a man who had a good intention in wanting to correct a young "juvenile delinquent," but went about it the completely wrong way, using passive aggression and even physical abuse to correct. Once in my life, I was a troublemaker teen, and I saw the same kind of "correction" from my own stepparent. For those of you who have been in the same boat with me, you know how it feels, and it is that same redemption--as well as hope--that prevails in This Boy's Life.
I highly encourage you to pay close attention to the differences between how Tobias Wolff portrays his mother Rosemary, and how Ellen Barkin--at the screenwriting of Robert Getchell and direction of Michael Caton-Jones--portrayed her. I'll put in a fun fact to paint the picture I want to give you: before Ms. Barkin was signed onto play Caroline, Debra Winger originally had the part! If you've ***seen*** This Boy's Life, you remember how submissive Caroline was to Dwight, which makes it incredibly hard not to laugh at the idea of an actress outspoken as Ms. Winger portraying her: and to an actor outspoken as Robert De Niro! As Tobias Wolff himself presents, however, Rosemary, while submissive, was also quick to stand up for her young son Tobias (referred to as Toby), even if not all the time. Rosemary is another hero of This Boy's Life, and if you enter into the novel with the same foreknowledge I had before even entering into the film, I think you'll have fun comparing the two Caroline's we meet, one in literature and one in film.
For those of you who yearn for a better life, and those of you who have already been given a better life (past the one you previously had), This Boy's Life is a book to read and to remember.
Autobiographical, gritty realism, and wonderful story-telling. Lacks the bravado, the self-importance, and the claustrophobia of the usual coming-of-age novel. Spare, naive, irreverent, haunting: the devastatingly lonely, yet hopeful, journey of a boy on the road to becoming a man, even if accidentally.
This was my first book by Wolff. He now has five on my shelf.
Yet somehow, the story is not as depressing as it could have been. Nor is it boring. This is largely due to the author's storytelling skill. This book deserves most of the kudos it receives, but if you read only one work by Wolff, read "In Pharaoh's Army."
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