Revisiting One Boy's Days of Rage and Humor

THIS BOY'S LIFE by Tobias Wolff, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 258 pp. $18.95

AFTER reading ``This Boy's Life,'' you'll probably want to read everything else Tobias Wolff has written. Few authors have reported their early years, wasted, halcyon, or otherwise, with the same suspense, longing, loathing, and glorious humor. The writing is clear and merciless, and the chapters are as fluid and perfect as anything I've read in years.

Growing up in the 1950s, Wolff goes with his mother to the Pacific Northwest. First she tries to make out on her own; later in a calamitous marriage with an erratically despotic character who makes young Wolff's life something to escape. He enters into wild friendships, petty crime, and general hebephrenia on a hilarious scale. Each experience is followed by doubt, fear of discovery, and finally learning the lesson of the experience just about backward.

Wolff grows up in Washington State in a company town in which the desolation is nearly palpable. Rural America, usually seen as an idyllic place to spend your youth, is often the exact opposite, since few teen-agers are enamored of trees and lonely views. Slowly, and painfully, Wolff realizes his desires are callow and snobbish, but all the more compelling. The escape he plans from the dull, rainy prison of rural Washington State for himself and his beloved mother is nearly derailed by the same cupidity that sparked it.

It's a story written by every author in one way or another from Norman Mailer to John Boy Walton. But I don't think it has ever been done this well. In Wolff's version there's rage marbled with a wise humor which reluctantly allows that the horrors of his formative years were probably no worse than a great many others'. His wit is dry and deadly, always understated, reminding me of Jean Shepherd at his best, and a little better. Wolff lays out in spare detail how badly and crazily he was treated, how wrongfully his dreams were ignored or sidetracked.

I don't have much patience for writers tracing the forces that made them writers, assuming that we care. But this is different. The underlying story is of how a young person slowly, and sadly, realized that the world is unfair and he didn't get the better share. This process happens in little instances, parents fighting over scarce money, friends destroyed by ignorance, others parading their advantages. The reaction is either acceptance, rebellion, fantasy, or, as in Wolff's case, an inconsistent mixture of all three. He becomes by turns a liar, a thief, a braggart, and a snob - each role an attempt to redress his grievances against the world.

Which sounds awful, except that Mr. Wolff also became a fine writer, an accomplishment for which nearly any childhood crimes may be excused.

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