Harper and Row, 1989
This Boy’s Life was made into a movie in 1993, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.
That the story begins with Wolff and his mother running from an abusive man and seeing an out-of-control truck plunge over a cliff is a mood setter. That it ends with Wolff singing his heart out with a friend as they drive in the night during the summer before he leaves for college is a tidy writer’s bow. The often agonizing childhood he and his brother Geoffrey endured in between the two scenes is told in straightforward language and sentence structure by an observer of his own life who is surprised he made it to a different neighborhood and life.
He has reason to be surprised he made it out of the tough and tumble working class neighborhoods and families where he spent his childhood. Too often he is left to his own devices for entertainment and methods of self-protection. The descriptions of troubled childhood friends and step-siblings is a sociological footnote to the over-glorified late fifties. It is from those around him he learns “victims are contemptible,” how not to feel guilt, and that, “The human heart is a dark forest.”
Wolff and his mother are close and she deeply cares, but she is also a single woman who works low wage jobs and has a strong attraction to abusive men. She is both the anchor that sustains him and the same anchor that keeps him rooted in difficult living arrangements.
This Boy’s Life is told from the comfort and distance of years that can give perspective and awareness beyond the self. Wolff doesn’t romanticize or seem to forgive anything in his spare style, but he also does not appear to embellish or hold old grudges against people who knew no better. He does seem to have gathered a wisdom from the pain that he sprinkles in his writing with the same monotone simplicity as the descriptions of the mental and physical cruelty he endured.
When read by people from happier circumstances this story would likely arouse pity or sympathy, and when read by people from similar lives it would evoke understanding and brotherhood. What is very interesting reading is the highly acclaimed Duke of Deception by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey in 1979, which tells the story of his view.