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This Boy's Life: A Memoir Paperback – March, 2000

4.2 out of 5 stars 272 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff electrified critics with his scarifying 1989 memoir, which many deemed as notable for its artful structure and finely wrought prose as for the events it describes. The story is pretty grim: Teenaged Wolff moves with his divorced mother from Florida to Utah to Washington State to escape her violent boyfriend. When she remarries, Wolff finds himself in a bitter battle of wills with his abusive stepfather, a contest in which the two prove to be more evenly matched than might have been supposed. Deception, disguise, and illusion are the weapons the young man learns to employ as he grows up--not bad training for a writer-to-be. Somber though this tale of family strife is, it is also darkly funny and so artistically satisfying that most readers come away exhilarated rather than depressed. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Wolff's fourth book, he recounts his coming-of-age with customary skill and self-assurance. Seeking a better life in the Northwestern U.S. with his divorced mother, whose "strange docility, almost paralysis, with men of the tyrant breed" taught Wolff the virtue of rebellion, he considered himself "in hiding," moved to invent a private, "better" version of himself in order to rise above his troubles. Primary among these were the adultsdrolly eccentric, sometimes dementedwho were bent on humiliating him. Since Wolff the writer never pities Wolff the boy, the author characterizes the crew of grown-up losers with damning objectivity, from the neurotic stepfather who painted his entire house (piano and Christmas tree included) white, to the Native American football star whose ultimate failure was as inexplicable as his athletic brilliance. Briskly and candidly reportedWolff's boyhood best friend "bathed twice a day but always gave off an ammoniac hormonal smell, the smell of growth and anxiety"his youth yields a self-made man whose struggle to fit the pieces together is authentic and endearing. Literary Guild alternate.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1 edition (March 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802136680
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802136688
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (272 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,487 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 21, 2005
Format: Paperback
Leaving Sarasota, Florida, in a run-down Nash Rambler in 1955, Toby Wolff, then ten, and his mother are looking forward to a new life in Utah. Not long after arriving, however, the two make a sudden, night-time departure for newer pastures in Seattle--the mother's abusive relationship in Utah having become intolerable. Later Toby and his mother gravitate to Chinook, a remote village in the Cascades. His mother marries a tough man who cruelly punishes Toby (who has changed his name to Jack in honor of Jack London) for infractions, sells some of Toby's belongings, and tries to enforce military discipline on him.

Wolff's story of his grim life from age ten through high school is a breath-taking recreation, filled with the sorts of longings that motivate sensitive young boys everywhere, but also filled with an a self-awareness that is rare in such autobiographies. Jack (Toby) is a rebel--a sometime kleptomaniac, thief, cheater, liar, and schoolboy miscreant who loves his mother, hates his stepfather (and generally tries to avoid him), and hangs out with similarly alienated, hell-raising schoolmates, who often "escape" through alcohol.

When he is a sophomore in high school, he talks with his older brother for the first time in six years. His brother, now a student at Princeton, remained with his father when his parents split, and he encourages Jack to apply as a scholarship student to an eastern boarding school, thereby escaping his step-father and starting yet another new life. Jack's only academic interest to date has been in writing, thanks to the inspiration of his English teacher, but he is intrigued with the idea of escape. The story of how Wolff lies and cheats his way into a prep school is a classic.
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Format: Paperback
I was compelled to read this book after watching the movie recently on HBO. Since I liked the movie, I knew the book would even be better and would shed more light on the characters and this book did. The movie has skipped a lot of parts and have repackage the story to fit a cinematic format, but nevetheless, I thought the movie did a pretty decent job in adapting it to screen.

The book starts out with ten year Wolff and his mother stuck on the side of the road because their car has overheated again and while waiting for the engine to cool off, they witness a truck going over a cliff because it has lost its brake. The beginning is allegorical of their story as they struggled thru abusive men, poverty and self doubt. But once in a while Toby and his mother would have some happier times although brief and few. I admire how Wolff never second guess what happened between his mother and the men whom she had relationships with, including his own father. He just gave enough details that you have to come up with your own conclusion. It isn't a really a happy book and at times you feel an overwhelming pity for Toby and his mom and wished things would be better in the next chapter but it never really did. Their lives was a constatnt struggle. The only thing that seem to hold them is each other and the perpetual belief that something better is around the corner. It's funny how we tend to have this sweet, nostalgic picture of the 50's of a sturdy, working dad, mom in the kitchen getting the meal ready and strong, gorgeous, all american kids that say "awh shucks" and "gee Wally" a lot. I think "This Boy's Life" was how things really were for a lot of single,poor women and their earnest little boys. I love reading this book, I started it in the morning and finished it by the next afternoon, this is always a hallmark of a good book and a good author. I hope you read it and enjoy it as well.
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Format: Paperback
This book proved a superb read. In all seriousness, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do so because, beyond his instinctive narrative style that both captivates and delights, Wolff substantiates the hard and fast rule in life that no matter how difficult of a childhood, one can always improve upon oneself.

Wolff is currently a professor at Stanford (unless things have changed without my knowledge), earned his B.A. at Oxford and received his M.S. at Stanford as well. This is incredible considering the childhood he laid out in This Boy's Life. Wolff was not a good little boy, to say the least. He was guilty of lying, stealing, cursing, fighting, forgery, and being rather unattached to anything or anyone but his mother. He spent several years with an abusive stepfather who, while never out-and-out beating him, put him through psychological trauma just as severe. It's amazing this man has become one of America's greatest writers, but I suppose all great talent was forged in blazing fires.

Wolff does not mince words and, while not a simple read, his memoir it moves very quickly. He did a masterful job of pacing the narrative so as to make things suspenseful without any truly dramatic plot twists. After all, this is his real life. Real life is something that happens, not something that follows a plot line. Wolff takes his real life and weaves it into a fascinating tale that I couldn't put down.

~Scott William Foley, author of Souls Triumphant
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Format: Paperback
In the opening scene of THIS BOY'S LIFE, young Toby Wolff and his mother are parked on the descent of a mountain road, waiting for the overheated engine of their cheap car to cool. An 18-wheeler suddenly blows past them, swerving wildly - his brakes are gone. Later, as they descend the mountain, Toby sees the semi has driven off a cliff, falling several hundred feet into a river below. This incident, obviously intended as a metaphor for the boy's life we are about to read, presumably signals bad things to come. Nevertheless, Tobias Wolff's boyhood memoir is a charming story of growing up in the 1950s in just this side of a trailer park culture, a story about creating adolescent identities as freely as trying on shoes until the right fit is found.

Not surprisingly, the main identity seeker in THIS BOY'S LIFE is "this boy." Toby lives with his divorced mother and her man friend, the physically abusive Roy. As the book opens, Toby and his mother are fleeing Florida and Roy for Utah, where they believe they can get rich by prospecting for uranium (this is the early 1950's, and atomic bombs were all the rage). Roy follows them to Utah where they settle for a while, but Roy's insistence on having children prompts Toby's mother to take him on the road again. By the luck of the bus schedule draw, they end up in Seattle. Over time, Toby's mother meets another man, Dwight, eventually decides to marry him (to give Toby a father figure), and moves into Dwight's home in the small town of Concrete. Along the way, Toby has changed his name to Jack because a girl in his class was named Toby, and because he likes Jack London stories. Roy has introduced Toby/Jack to rifles, and Dwight introduces him to the Boy Scouts.

Toby is not alone in seeking an identity.
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