Table of Contents
OTHER BOOKS BY TOBIAS WOLFF
In the Garden of the North American
Back in the World
The Barracks Thief
In Pharaoh’s Army
The Night in Question
Copyright © 1989 by Tobias Wolff
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
Printed in the United States
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wolff, Tobias, 1945―
This boy’s life : a memoir / Tobias Wolff.
ISBN 978-0-8021-9860-0 (ebook)
eISBN : 97-8-080-21986-0
1. Wolff, Tobias, 1945―—Biography. 2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. I. Title.
PS3573.O558Z477 1989 813’.54—dcl9 [B] 88-17600
Design by Julie Duquet
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
For Michael and Patrick
I am especially grateful to my wife, Catherine, for her many careful readings of this book. I would also like to thank Rosemary Hutchins, Geoffrey Wolff, Gary Fisketjon, and Amanda Urban for their help and support. I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.
My first stepfather used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book. Well, here it is.
“The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered. ”
“He who fears corruption fears life. ”
ur car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the comer and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff’s edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.
For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn’t help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.
IT WAS 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.
We’d left Sarasota in the dead of summer, right after my tenth birthday, and headed West under low flickering skies that turned black and exploded and cleared just long enough to leave the air gauzy with steam. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick, strangled tongues. Idlers with rotten teeth surrounded the car to press peanuts on the pretty Yankee lady and her little boy, arguing among themselves about shortcuts. Women looked up from their flower beds as we drove past, or watched us from their porches, sometimes impassively, sometimes giving us a nod and a flutter of their fans.
Every couple of hours the Nash Rambler boiled over. My mother kept digging into her little grubstake but no mechanic could fix it. All we could do was wait for it to cool, then drive on until it boiled over again. (My mother came to hate this machine so much that not long after we got to Utah she gave it away to a woman she met in a cafeteria.) At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. But none of this bothered me. I was caught up in my mother’s freedom, her delight in her freedom, her dream of transformation.
Everything was going to change when we got out West. My mother had been a girl in Beverly Hills, and the life we saw ahead of us was conjured from her memories of California in the days before the Crash. Her father, Daddy as she called him, had been a navy officer and a paper millionaire. They’d lived in a big house with a turret. Just before Daddy lost all his money and all his shanty-Irish relatives’ money and got himself transferred overseas, my mother was one of four girls chosen to ride on the Beverly Hills float in the Tournament of Roses. The float’s theme was “The End of the Rainbow” and it won that year’s prize by acclamation. She met Jackie Coogan. She had her picture taken with Harold Lloyd and Marion Davies, whose movie The Sailor Man was filmed on Daddy’s ship. When Daddy was at sea she and her mother lived a dream life in which, for days at a time, they played the part of sisters.
And the cars my mother told me about as we waited for the Rambler to cool—I should have seen the cars! Daddy drove a Franklin touring car. She’d been courted by a boy who had his own Chrysler convertible with a musical horn. And of course there was the Hernandez family, neighbors who’d moved up from Mexico after finding oil under their cactus ranch. The family was large. When they were expected to appear somewhere together they drove singly in a caravan of identical Pierce-Arrows.
Something like that was supposed to happen to us. People in Utah were getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night. You didn’t need to be a mining engineer or a mineralogist. All you needed was a Geiger counter. We were on our way to the uranium fields, where my mother would get a job and keep her eyes open. Once she learned the ropes she’d start prospecting for a claim of her own.
And when she found it she planned to do some serious compensating: for the years of hard work, first as a soda jerk and then as a novice secretary, that had gotten her no farther than flat broke and sometimes not that far. For the breakup of our family five years earlier. For the misery of her long affair with a violent man. She was going to make up for lost time, and I was going to help her.
WE GOT TO Utah the day after the truck went down. We were too late—months too late. Moab and the other mining towns had been overrun. All the motels were full. The locals had rented out their bedrooms and living rooms and garages and were now offering trailer space in their front yards for a hundred dollars a week, which was what my mother could make in a month if she had a job. But there were no jobs, and people were getting ornery. There’d been murders. Prostitutes walked the streets in broad daylight, drunk and bellicose. Geiger counters cost a fortune. Everyone told us to keep going.
My mother thought things over. Finally she bought a poor man’s Geiger counter, a black light that was supposed to make uranium trace glow, and we started for Salt Lake City. She figured there must be ore somewhere around there. The fact that nobody else had found any meant that we would have the place pretty much to ourselves. To tide us over she planned to take a job with the Kennecott Mining Company, whose personnel officer had responded to a letter of inquiry she’d sent from Florida some time back. He had warned her against coming, said there was no work in Salt Lake and that his own company was about to go out on strike. But his letter was so friendly! My mother just knew she’d get a job out of him. It was as good as guaranteed.
So we drove on through the desert. As we drove, we sang—Irish ballads, folk songs, big-band blues. I was hooked on “Mood Indigo.” Again and again I world-wearily crooned “You ain’t been blue, no, no, no” while my mother eyed the temperature gauge and babied the engine. Then my throat dried up on me and left me croaking. I was too excited anyway. Our trail was ending. Burma Shave ads and bullet-riddled mileage signs ticked past. As the numbers on those signs grew smaller we began calling them out at the top of our lungs.
didn’t come to Utah to be the same boy I’d been before. I had my own dreams of transformation, Western dreams, dreams of freedom and dominion and taciturn self-sufficiency. The first thing I wanted to do was change my name. A girl named Toby had joined my class before I left Florida, and this had caused both of us scalding humiliation.
I wanted to call myself Jack, after Jack London. I believed that having his name would charge me with some of the strength and competence inherent in my idea of him. The odds were good that I’d never have to share a classroom with a girl named Jack. And I liked the sound. Jack. Jack Wolff. My mother didn’t like it at all, neither the idea of changing my name nor the name itself. I did not drop the subject. She finally agreed, but only on condition that I attend catechism classes. Once I was ready to be received into the Church she would allow me to take Jonathan as my baptismal name and shorten it to Jack. In the meantime I could introduce myself as Jack when I started school that fall.
My father got wind of this and called from Connecticut to demand that I stick to the name he had given me. It was, he said, an old family name. This turned out to be untrue. It just sounded like an old family name, as the furniture he bought at antique stores looked like old family furniture, and as the coat of arms he’d designed for himself looked like the shield of some fierce baron who’d spent his life wallowing in Saracen gore, charging from battle to battle down muddy roads lined with groveling peasants and churls.
He was also unhappy about my becoming a Catholic. “My family,” he told me, “has always been Protestant. Episcopalian, actually.” Actually, his family had always been Jews, but I had to wait another ten years before learning this. In the extremity of his displeasure my father even put my older brother on the phone. I was surly, and Geoffrey didn’t really care what I called myself, and there it ended.
My mother was pleased by my father’s show of irritation and stuck up for me. A new name began to seem like a good idea to her. After all, he was in Connecticut and we were in Utah. Though my father was rolling in money at the time—he had married the millionairess he’d been living with before the divorce—he sent us nothing, not even the pittance the judge had prescribed for my support. We were barely making it, and making it in spite of him. My shedding the name he’d given me would put him in mind of that fact.