This Man’s Life: Tobias Wolff on Raising the Bar of Memoir Writing

Tobias Wolff
Wolff at Kepler's in Menlo Park, California, April 25, 2008

"My first stepfather used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book," Tobias Wolff writes in the beginning of his memoir, This Boy’s Life. "Well, here it is." That "well," that deceptively casual, conversational pause that summons all the power, all the hurt and anger and rueful humor of the book to come, puts us on notice: we haven’t even gotten to chapter one, and we already know we are in the grips of something powerful, something extraordinary. Over the following pages, Wolff uses this same voice, at once matter of fact and urgent, to tell us the story of his unspectacular, yet completely unforgettable childhood and young adulthood growing up in the Pacific Northwest. This Boy’s Life is not the only memoir to limn a lonely, confused boy’s stumblings towards manhood, but it is undeniably one of the best of all time.

Wolff, who turns sixty-nine today (June 19), was born in Alabama, but, as he describes in the first chapters of his memoir, moved across the country with his mother, from Florida to first Utah, then Washington, when he was young. The moves were inspired in part by his mother’s desire to escape a man and improve her and young Toby’s life, but the man who would become Wolff’s first stepfather complicated matters. In his memoir, Wolff describes his stepfather as capricious and cruel, jealous of Wolff and threatened by anyone he perceived as more intelligent. But the portrait is not of an unredeemed monster, and Wolff is careful to apportion blame for the unhappiness of his childhood to his dependent mother, and, most of all, himself.

While the writer lived in dulled misery, fighting with his stepfather and attending high school in Concrete, Washington, his older brother, Geoffrey, was growing up with their father in opulence in California, or so it seemed to the younger Wolff. In 1979, Geoffrey Wolff published the memoir The Duke of Deception in which he revealed that their father, Duke Wolff, was in fact a conman and fraud. As Geoffrey Wolff writes, "my father depended excessively on people’s good will." As a child, the writer found his father a commanding presence, but as an adult, realized he had "confused respect with resentment."

Though Tobias Wolff didn’t grow up with his father, he had a bit of the conman in his blood as well. The writer bluffed his way into an exclusive boarding school by forging letters of recommendation, reinventing himself as a sterling scholar. He was expelled from the boarding school after two years, joined the Army, and fought in Vietnam. He wrote about his experiences in the military in his second memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, in which he describes, with his usual self-scouring candor, feeling afraid, unqualified as a soldier, and terrified of humiliating himself: "I lacked the courage to confess my incompetence as the price of getting out. I was ready to be killed, even, perhaps, get others killed, to avoid that humiliation."

Wolff’s time in the Army marked him indelibly, and though he went on to attend Oxford and Stanford after Vietnam, it is the confusion and moral ambiguity of military life that he returns to repeatedly in his fiction. After publishing a novel and a collection of short stories, he wrote the PEN/Faulkner award-winning novella The Barracks Thief, which is set on a military base in California. After another short story collection, he wrote This Boy’s Life. He would go on to publish another story collection and the novel Old School, and earlier this year won a lifetime achievement award from Oregon State University. His fiction, as with his memoirs, mixes a certain stoicism about the hard facts of life with philosophical inquiry into the nature of morality, with surprising flashes of tenderness and humor. At 69, Wolff should have many productive years ahead of him, and may yet produce another memoir to rival This Boy’s Life. But even if he never writes another word, he can rest assured he proved his stepfather wrong: when it comes to writing with truth and integrity, he knows it all.