book 13 of 24 books in 28 days: this boy’s life
I read Tobias Wolff's novel Old School just before applying for the MFA program I am now working toward completing. In my application letter, I quoted Wolff. To start this post, another quote from the headmaster of Old School: "Make no mistake, he said: a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life."
And a little bit more from Mary Karr's Lit before I get to This Boy's Life. She describes meeting Wolff at a reception at the Morgan Library.
Then, with some jostling, the crowd parts, and there stands Toby Wolff, looking immensely hearty dead center of that vaulted room. He wears a blue blazer and has a beer in his hand. Hardly anybody reads memoirs much, but I check them out by the armload, including that year Toby's This Boy's Life, his own hair-raising account of battles with a bullying redneck stepfather.
The fact that Toby's origins are almost as scabby and unfortunate as my own partly make him aproachable. Plus he taught me in grad school before he was a big deal. I'd even written him for advice on how to rework the discombobulated novel I'd cobbled together into nonfiction . . . . The letter Toby sent back got taped over my desk. It said:
Don't approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit . . . Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed . . . Don't be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.
I read This Boy's Life wondering, in part, whether he would follow his own advice. He ruthlessly chronicles his childhood lying, stealing, vandalizing, and fighting. He tells of beating his family dog, a Weimaraner named Champion. He is honest about his feelings of unworthiness and sense of identity-lessness, qualities which lead him to attempt a series of self-reinventions and construct a series of identities.
The identity that ends the book is a faked application to a boy's school named Hill, the part of his life that he writes about in Old School. He says of writing his own recommendation letters, "I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I know myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face."
Describing being outfitted for his trip to Hill, he repeats this scene of seeing himself from outside himself:
. . . I was alone before the mirror. The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression. Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.
He studied me as if I had the answer.
Luckily for him, he was no judge of men. If he had seen the fissures in my character he might have known what he was in for. He might have known that he was headed for all kinds of trouble, and, knowing this, he might have lost heart before the game even got started.
But he saw nothing to alarm him. He took a step forward, stuck his hands in his pockets, threw back his shoulders and cocked his head. There was a dash of swagger in his pose, something of the stage cavalier, but his smile was friendly and hopeful.
Maybe this seeing oneself as outside oneself is part of what we do when we write memoir.
If Mary Karr's The Liar's Club seemed "truthful" to me because she admitted where her memory failed her, This Boy's Life seems "truthful" because Wolff doesn't seem to spare himself for a moment. He follows his admonition to tell his stories, and his story is revealed.