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Tobias Wolff, best known for This Boy’s Life: A Memoir (1989), provided a definition of the guiding principles behind his own stories in explaining his preference for works of others that ”speak to us, without flippancy, about things that matter. They write about what happens between men and women, parents and children. . . . They are, every one of them, interested in what it means to be human.” What his reviewers have consistently understood, and what Wolff himself implies, is that his is a genuinely humanistic fiction—both human and humane.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Broken Home and Abuse
Wolff was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Rosemary Loftus Wolff and Arthur Saunders Wolff. Wolff hardly knew the compulsive liar and con man that was his biological father. ”Duke” Wolff was many things during his lifetime: a car thief, a heavy drinker, forger, and absent father. Tobias Wolff, who was raised as a Catholic, only learned of his father’s Jewish heritage following the elder Wolff’s death. ”Duke” carefully concealed his Jewish origins and prevented relations with his family; Wolff was introduced to his cousins only after his father’s passing. Following his parents’ divorce, his older brother Geoffrey—who authored the memoir The Duke of Deception (1979)—lived with their father. The younger Wolff and his mother moved to Washington where he was forced to deal with a sadistic new stepfather. Wolff, desiring to escape his miserable home life, gained entrance to The Hill School—a prestigious preparatory boarding school located in Pottstown, Pennsylvania—by falsifying admission documents, but he was later expelled. Later, after spending years as a victim of his stepfather’s vicious behavior, he chronicled the struggle in This Boy’s Life: A Memoir.
Special Forces Service in the Vietnam War
Emerging from his adolescence, Wolff joined the military and became a member of the United States Army Special Forces. He was taught the Vietnamese language and spent a year as an advisor to Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War, a military conflict between North Vietnam and its communist allies and South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. His experience in the military from 1964-1968 was later the foundation of his memoir In Pharaoh’s Army (1994).
Oxford University and Marriage
After his stint in the military, Wolff earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1972 from Oxford University. In 1975 he received the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing, published his first novel, Ugly Rumors (1975), and married Catherine Delores Spohn, an art-history teacher and a social worker, with whom he subsequently had two sons, Michael and Patrick. He then received a master’s degree from Stanford University in 1978.
In 1984 Wolff published The Barracks Thief, a novella of seventy-three pages, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1985. Reviewer Mona Simpson defined Wolff’s achievement in this piece as a deftly staged ”small-scale moral drama.” The novella seems to take up where Wolff’s later autobiography This Boy’s Life: A Memoir leaves off: it introduces a protagonist, Philip, whose defining youthful experiences of paternal abandonment relate him to the young Toby Wolff (in This Boy’s Life: A Memoir), and it follows him from basic training to service in Vietnam.
Publication of This Boy’s Life: A Memoir marked a significant change in Wolff’s career as it vaulted him into a role as a force in American literature. In this memoir of himself as a youngster, he drew critical success for his horrific coming of age narrative that recounts his struggles with a disrupted home and family life. In addition to becoming a successful novelist, Wolff gained added prestige in 1993 when his memoir became a Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
Author and Professor
Wolff, while teaching creative writing at university, has written and edited several collections of short stories, including Best American Short Stories (1994) and The Night in Question (1997). His novel Old School (2003) is narrated by a student attending an exclusive private school, much like The Hill School Wolff briefly attended, and continues Wolff’s exploration of identity and class.
Works in Literary Context
Wolff’s stories offer up human and moral themes often chronicling status seekers and the ways they go about ordering their lives to create and manipulate their image. Wolff has stated that ”you could say that all of my characters are reflections of myself, in that I share their wish to count for something and their almost complete confusion as to how this is supposed to be done.”
Undoubtedly a great influence on Wolff’s writing has been that of his older brother, Geoffrey, whose intervention and example gave Wolff his first glimpse of the possibilities beyond the narrow world evoked in This Boy’s Life: A Memoir. He described his brother as ”the first person I’d ever met for whom books were the only way in which you could in good conscience spend your life.” Wolff recounts another nurturing relationship with the late Raymond Carver, a friend with whom Wolff taught at Goddard and Syracuse: ”Ray’s work gave me a sense of confirmation about what I was doing. I felt an immediate affinity for his standards of honesty and exactness, his refusal to do anything cheap in a story, to destroy his characters with irony that proved his own virtue.”
Wolfs fiction is realistic with an edge, sometimes termed ”dirty realism”—a movement derived from minimalism characterized by description in exquisite detail with minimal words. Critic Brina Caplan takes exception with cases in his writing where mirroring events has become an end in itself, resulting in sterile flashes of likeness. She also lauds Wolff who, when he chooses, ”can do more than find the words for things; at his best, he can use words to test lives against accidental and self-selected conditions. When he concentrates on the interpenetration of mind and circumstance, then his perspective— however trivial the situation or purposefully alien the character—fixes our attention.?
American Realists and Experimentation
Following World War II, American writers began to create innovative and self-aware, or reflexive works shaped by the texture of popular culture. From chronicling the elite classes of society, writers increasingly experimented with influences of lives of the masses. The autobiographical nature of Wolff’s narratives and characters echo this realism in the terrain of their everyday life. In realistic fiction, events do not speak for themselves; they require both a shaping grammar that controls incident and explains the convergence of circumstance and personal necessity.
The connection between family and the search for identity is inherent in the critical discussion of the memoir, placed within the literary tradition of the autobiography though less structured or comprehensive. ”As Wolff is in print, so he is in person,” comments arts reporter Nadine Oregan succinctly characterizing Wolff the author with his memoirs. She notes that even when he is telling a horrific story from his own youth, he is ”rarely less than humorous and warm.” Wolff doesn’t allow himself the luxury of complaint or negativity as, ”That’s what has got me through life,” he comments, that it is the ”sense of hilarity that lies just beyond the edge of the awful. The two are so mingled sometimes.”
Works in Critical Context
Tobias Wolff sees his fiction as ”inquisitive” rather than preachy, though some critics would disagree. ”I don’t always have answers to the questions I raise, and I don’t feel that I always ought to have answers,” Wolff declares in an interview with Nadine O’Regan. Writing in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt notes that Wolff’s outlook in at least some of his stories ”seems almost old-fashioned in its morality and its concern for the great wrongs.” Erin McGraw observes in The Georgia Review that ”Wolff isn’t interested in exalting his characters; he’s interested in judging them, and his stories typically have a sharp moral edge.”
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
In a review of Wolff’s first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Brina Caplan describes his writing as engaging in scrutiny of ”the disorders of daily living to find significant order.” These stories, often concerning middle-class men and women rather than impoverished boys, impressed critic Lee Anne Schrieber of The New York Times. In her review, she declares that Wolff’s intention with these stories is to ”undermine our complacency.”
This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
This chronicle of his troubled youth is his best-known and clearest work of autobiography. Wolff admits to occasionally altering the facts to suit the needs of the narratives, although his mother did say that the account was probably ”about 85 percent true.” According to Joel Connaroe, the ”book reads very much like a collection of short stories, each with its own beginning, middle and end.” This Boy’s Life: A Memoir garnered high praise from most who reviewed it. Connaroe hails it as ”literate and consistently entertaining—and richer, and darker, and funnier than anything else Tobias Wolff has written.”
- Begley, Ann. ”No Dimmin His Light.” America 198 (April 28, 2008): 31-34.
- Caplan, Brina. ”Particular Truths.” The Nation 234 (February 6, 1982): 29-30.
- Connaroe, Joel. Review of ”Particular Truths.” The Nation 234 (February 6, 1982): 29-30.
- Hellman, David. Review of This Boy’s Life. New York Times Book Review (January 15, 1989).
- O’Gorman, Farrell. ”Tobias Wolff’s Back in the World.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 48.1(Fall 2006): 71-90.
- Simpson, Mona. Review of The Barracks Thief. New Republic (December 9, 1985).
- Wolff, Tobias. ”Winter Lights.” The New Yorker 84.17 (June 9, 2008): 70.
- ”The Barracks Thief.” Forbes 136 (July 15,1985): 19-20.
- O’Regan, Nadine. Tobias Wolff Interview. Retrieved November 28, 2008, from http://nadineoregan. wordpress.com/2008/07/06/tobias-wolff-interview-sbp. Last updated on July 6, 2008.
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