This Boy’s Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #86)

(This is the fifteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Mathematician’s Apology.)

It is worth recalling that the Boy Scout, that putative paragon of American boyhood virtue, originated in 1909 with a man lost in the foggy haze of a mazy London byway. W.D. Boyce was a recently divorced newspaperman cast adrift in the English mist, until he was guided by a uniformed lad known only as the Unknown Scout. This young whippersnapper, who was no soldier and had no tomb (unless you count a mangy Silver Buffalo memorial that presently stands in Gilwell Park), steered Boyce to his destination and refused Boyce’s tip after that gent hoped to consummate his gratitude. The boy did so not because he was a well-paid German stevedore or a terrified Uber driver hoping to hold onto his job, but because he was merely doing his duty and this was enough recompense, thank you very much. From here, Boyce asked the boy about his coterie, was allegedly led to Boy Scouts HQ like a starry-eyed drifter seeking a new easy access religion, and encountered Chief Scout Robert Baden-Powell, an irrepressible do-gooder who intoxicated Boyce with tales of uniforms and valor and decency and truth and justice and many other nouns etched with ostentatious pedigree and scant subtlety that were later memorialized in a handbook published in six fortnightly parts called Scouting for Boys. Four months later, Boyce returned to the States to found the Boy Scouts of America. He had found his calling. Shortly after this, presumably emboldened by the new youthful virtues flooding through his veins, Boyce would marry a well-connected woman twenty-three years younger. But Boyce’s brio was not enough to preserve this second marriage, which dissolved within two years. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have continued to endure, albeit with plentiful dissimulation saddled to the “Be prepared” credo.

This legend, which isn’t nearly as imaginative or as thrilling as Robert Johnson signing away his soul to the devil in exchange for spangling guitar chops, has nevertheless become as accepted and as apocryphal as the birth of the blues or any story of rugged outliers founding tech startups in their garages or, for that matter, the cloying cherry tree myth associated with George Washington, a shrewd political operator who claimed that he could not tell a lie despite deceiving many over a lifetime about his professed lack of political expertise. Boy Scout booster (and sex therapist!) Edward Rowan has pointed out that Boyce outed himself in a February 27, 1928 letter, claiming that he was not floating in the Dickensian murk, but merely standing before the Savoy Hotel while contemplating the question of whether he should cross a street. Moreover, others have suggested that there was no fog during that evening. As one excavates further into W.D. Boyce’s history, one learns that this sanctimonious founder was a racist, even denying African-Americans entry into the hallowed organization. (Boyce also published a journal called The White Boy’s Magazine.) By the late 1980s, the Boy Scouts were forced to establish protective measures in response to countless sex abuse cases later documented by reporter Patrick Boyle in 1991. The Boy Scouts of America, a seemingly sacred institution, had been little more than a seductive shawl disguising the ugly American id. It is thus the perfect metaphor for Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a moving memoir about a boy wrestling with the lies, the duplicities, and the hypocrisies of growing up in America. It is an especially cogent volume in an epoch of fake news, covfefe, and thundering Republican men casually asphyxiating the weak and the vulnerable in the name of old school virtue.

For young Tobias (aka Jack, a sobriquet inspired by an altogether different London), the deceptive pose was a way of being and coping through a rough-and-tumble existence. This Boy’s Life opens with Toby and his mother retreating from an abusive man in Florida by way of a dodgy Nash Rambler with an overboiling engine. Their hope was to find fortune through a desperate uranium hunt by way of a poor man’s Geiger counter. Like many Americans before, the westward journey here is one of escape and, as one pores through the memoir’s crisply paced pages, increasingly about assuming roles that bear no resemblance to reality. The cooing pop songs crooning from the radio provide voices for Toby to emulate, perhaps serving as a staging area for transformation. Yet Catholicism, itself a practice just as fraught with frangible self-abengation as the Boy Scouts, also represents the new terrain from which to launch an identity. Toby’s father, telephoning from Connecticut, claims that the family line has always been Protestant or Episcopalian, but Wolff informs us that he learned of his true Jewish heritage ten years after this revelation. Names, identities, veneers, and backgrounds are the melting pot from which to sprout a respectable soul, yet Toby scoffs at the purported innocence of this problematic chrysalis. “Power,” writes Wolff, placing his budding irritation within the context of his later experience in Vietnam, “can only be enjoyed when it is recognized and feared. Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

Woolf’s Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, would chronicle similar tensions between patriotic duty and survival, and one must observe that the two memoirs are united by Wolff possessing a gun, that priapic symbol of American manhood that has caused so much recent and needless terror. This Boy’s Life sees these uncertain seeds planted in loam long before basic training. I once had the good fortune to interview Wolff in 2008 and he revealed that he was dead set against narcissism’s pathology overtaking any story. Which leads me to believe that Wolff understands, as William Gass has observed in a notable essay on narcissism and writing, that autobiographers turn themselves into monsters, often hiding deceit behind their confessions. To reckon poignantly with a life, a memoirist must never cover up his shame or settle scores with self-serving vigor, for he invites a dishonesty in which the professed act of soul-bearing smudges the more important ink needed for corrupted but authentic memory.

What is most striking about This Boy’s Life is that Wolff never sugarcoats his life. Nor does he beckon the reader to feel sympathy for him, even as he succumbs to abuse from Dwight, the abominable man whom his mother Rosemary eventually tries to forge a family with. It is the shakiest of new beginnings following an uncertain stint at a West Seattle boardinghouse. There are men who hit on Rosemary, ascribing athleticism to Toby and pledging bicycle gifts that never materialize, and we see only Rosemary’s tears from unseen boorishness. Toby steals and breaks windows with his pals. He puts forth lies. And as Dwight enters Toby’s life, Wolff observes that this minuscule mechanic tries too hard: “No eye is quicker to detect that kind of effort than the eye of a competitor who also happens to be a child.” But Dwight does have a family, including a daughter named Pearl with a prominent bald spot. And just as Rosemary sees possibility in volunteering for idealistic Democratic candidates, she sees an opportunity in Dwight. Much as W.D. Boyce being bowled over by a Boy Scout, effort is enough to plant an acorn for a dubious family tree. Meanwhile, Toby lets loose several “Fuck yous,” memorializing the message into a wall, and gets in trouble with the vice principal. When the vice principal meets with Rosemary, Toby is convinced of his innocence, not unlike Dwight, and the vice principal reveals his own systematic and sanctimonious story of how he quit smoking to buy a Nash Rambler, the very same rickety vehicle that brought Toby and Rosemary to the west.

It is here that the kernel for Dwight’s autocratic adoption of Toby begins to pop with a frenzy of fragile male ego: the belief that laborious effort, even on the most inconsequential acts, somehow makes one a respectable hard-working American. Toby is asked to pick up roadkill. He is asked to wait in a car as Dwight gets plastered in a bar. He is watched as Dwight fuels himself on tugs of Old Crow and Camels. He delivers newspapers and his earnings are pilfered by Dwight. He paints an old Baldwin piano to cover up its chintz. And he is commanded to pluck hard husks of horse chestnuts — a tyrannical tilling with some unspecified life lesson attached in which the product of all this hard labor is never actually used. When Toby gets into a fight with a kid named Arthur Gayle, Dwight coaches him on pugilism, claiming that any defeat is his fault. And throughout all this, there are the weekly Boy Scout meetings. Toby’s plan is to run away from Dwight’s home in Concrete, a Washington hamlet built on shaky slopes that Wolff describes as a graying and dusty landscape with cracking cement banks. It is, like many parts of America even today, a fraying tableau where too much effort gets in the way of existence, disguising the fissures of easily broken lives. One can almost imagine Dwight using the hashtag #MAGA on Twitter had he materialized decades later.

Whether this subjective truth-telling represents a kind of fearlessness or power in its own right is subject to the degree to which you are willing to embrace Wolff’s life story. But it does represent a refreshing alternative to the Horatio Alger grandstanding that too many personal essays wallow in today. (See, for example, most of the material published on Thought Catalog.) David Plotz once chided Dave Pelzer for turning child abuse into entertainment. This Boy’s Life avoids such petty voyeurism, in large part because it nestles Toby’s life and Dwight’s stark assaults by Dwight within the larger American dilemma of how to contend with fakery. And in an epoch where narcissistic dishonesty and “alternative facts” and social media outrage are increasingly the norm, there is a beautiful grace in putting your life out there and not giving a damn how others judge it.

Next Up: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night!

The Bat Segundo Show: Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #208. Wolff is most recently the author of Our Story Begins.

Condition of the Show: Speculating upon Mr. Wolff’s unknown powers.

Author: Tobias Wolff

Subjects Discussed: Writing first-person stories that don’t seem like first-person stories, the use of the word “I,” contemporary short stories and therapy sessions, fiction and narcissism, William Trevor, knowing the lay of the land, the symbols of the everyday universe, tulle fog, writing endings before the endings, Tolstoy vs. Chekhov, whether “Bullet to the Brain” had any specific literary critic in mind for its premise, dog stories, conversations in cars as the common American confessional, the open road, the consciousness of dogs, straying from realism, stories that end with an italicized line or a whisper, the precise and imprecise details within a sentence, arranging the short story order within a collection, “Best Of” vs. “Selected” stories, psychology and the skillful lack of overt specificity within “The Rich Brother,” hiding a story’s design, Flannery O’Connor, and how Wolff contends with variegated reader reactions.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This idea of first-person narration that is somewhat removed — maybe this is more of a classical sense of the short story, in the sense that today, contemporary short stories are, as you point out, more of a gushing therapy session. Maybe that’s what we’re talking about.

Wolff: Well, I don’t know. Again, when I think, for example, of Philip Roth’s first-person narrators, they are interested in the world at least as much as they are interested in themselves and interested in other people. And that shows up in the narration. It would be a pretty boring story that was so — if I could put it this way — narcissistically defined if you didn’t get a sense of the world beyond the narrator or of other people beyond it. I would think that, unless it was deliberately taking on the pathology of narcissism, it would be a deficiency of the story. Some stories, of course — some first-person stories — rely on a very heavy colloquial. And that may be something that you’re noticing with some of the stories. Like the one I just quoted from, “Next Door,” is quite colloquial. In other stories, you get the sense that the narrator is telling the story not in the immediate moment of the story, but perhaps from a distance. Which also would give you a wider vision of the circumstances and the people involved. And also perhaps a more articulate voice. A more capacious voice. So it isn’t just a Catcher in the Rye, moment-by-moment narration, but something that would open up a little more in the way of Philip Roth or William Trevor. The way their first person stories work.

(A lengthier excerpt from the show can be found here.)

Play

Nine New Segundo Shows

This week, nine new installments of The Bat Segundo Show were released from the factory. I’ll be cross-posting the full capsules here at Reluctant Habits (the new preposterous name of this place) as soon as I find some time to complete them. (Books are now migrating their way to the new location, and this has been keeping me busy.) But for those who wish to plunge into the conversations right now, here’s a list of recent shows:

206. Sarah Hall. Hall, the recent winner of the James Tiptree Award, is an extraordinary writer. I’ve written a piece on all three of her books that will be appearing at another place. But in the meantime, you can listen to the nearly 70 minute conversation we conducted on her work as a whole. We carried out despite fire alarms and some lively debate.

207. David Hajdu. Hajdu is the author of The Ten-Cent Plague, but this conversation touches largely upon much of the journalistic methods he used in tracking down some of his subjects.

208. Tobias Wolff. This conversation has been excerpted elsewhere. Wolff was guarded, but he gradually warmed up as the conversation progressed, offering some interesting insights into how he puts together a short story.

209. Sloane Crosley. Ms. Crosley is regrettably known more for her shiny hair than her essays. Hopefully, this discussion will rectify this impression.

210. Cynthia Ozick. I was greatly honored to talk with the wonderful Ms. Ozick, winner of two recent lifetime achievement awards, a few days before her eightieth birthday.

211. Ed Park! Ed Park has written a very good debut novel. I had so many observations about his book that I had to cram into our conversation that we ended up talking for more than an hour.

212. Fiona Maazel. Despite the intrusive presence of a coffee grinder, Fiona and I managed to talk more or less intelligibly about Last, Last Chance.

213. Steven Greenhouse. I reviewed Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze for the B&N Review last week. This conversation reflects some of my observations and delves into very important labor issues.

214. Ralph Bakshi. One of my most anarchic interviews, but in a very good way. If you aren’t aware of Bakshi’s accomplishments in underground animation (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin), you’ll want to give this a listen.

215. Christian Bauman. We were ejected from a Midtown diner midway through our conversation, but this didn’t stop Mr. Bauman and I from discussing In Hoboken, which Mr. Bauman assures me is a “folk novel” and not a “rock ‘n’ roll novel.”

216. Mort Walker. The creator of Beetle Bailey reveals a number of unexpected attitudes about war and women.

Interview with Tobias Wolff

This week, The Bat Segundo Show will cross the 200 episode barrier. A future program will feature a conversation with the writer Tobias Wolff, whose most recent book, Our Story Begins, is a short story collection containing previously collected tales — including the classics “Bullet in the Brain” and “Hunters in the Snow” — and more recent offerings like “A White Bible,” a gripping narrative that takes the notion of entitlement to task, but leaves judgment to the reader. In the New York Times Book Review*, Liesl Schillinger wrote, “To read a story is to sink into the soft seat of your grandfather’s strong, modest old Buick and let yourself be carried through an America of small towns, small joys, small struggles and small despairs — a landscape so familiar as to be invisible, the landscape of homeland.” Wolff’s stories are certainly a place to recognize readily identifiable qualities, but what makes him a fabulous writer is the way in which these quotidian moments are charged with import without coming across as overtly portentous.

I got the chance to talk with Wolff last week when he was in New York. He was a confident figure beating a bad cold. And while he was interested in how readers interpreted his stories, he had no desire to offer explanations. But I did pry further. And I was able to unfurl some of the science Wolff brings to his tales. What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation.

Correspondent: This idea of first-person narration that is somewhat removed — maybe this is more of a classical sense of the short story, in the sense that today, contemporary short stories are, as you point out, more of a gushing therapy session. Maybe that’s what we’re talking about.

Wolff: Well, I don’t know. Again, when I think, for example, of Philip Roth’s first-person narrators, they are interested in the world at least as much as they are interested in themselves and interested in other people. And that shows up in the narration. It would be a pretty boring story that was so — if I could put it this way — narcissistically defined if you didn’t get a sense of the world beyond the narrator or of other people beyond it. I would think that, unless it was deliberately taking on the pathology of narcissism, it would be a deficiency of the story. Some stories, of course — some first-person stories — rely on a very heavy colloquial. And that may be something that you’re noticing with some of the stories. Like the one I just quoted from, “Next Door,” is quite colloquial. In other stories, you get the sense that the narrator is telling the story not in the immediate moment of the story, but perhaps from a distance. Which also would give you a wider vision of the circumstances and the people involved. And also perhaps a more articulate voice. A more capacious voice. So it isn’t just a Catcher in the Rye, moment-by-moment narration, but something that would open up a little more in the way of Philip Roth or William Trevor. The way their first person stories work.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if it’s something similar to Nabokov’s idea — that he had to know the lay of the land before he could write any particular novel or short story or what not. Maybe this is your concern.

Wolff: Well, by the time I write the last draft of a story, which — well, when Nabokov wrote his first drafts, they were like the last drafts of anybody else’s. By the time I write the last draft of the story, I certainly do know more than I can ever tell about my characters’ situations. So you’re just seeing a part of it.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about the very subtle use of symbols throughout these stories. They are essentially straightforward realism. But you have, for example, in “A White Bible,” the attention to Frontage Road. You have the light shutting off at the end of “Say Yes.” And also, I really love the tule fog at the end of “The Rich Brother.” So these are really symbolic. But also, at the same time, they come from this realism. And I should also observe that, particularly with these endings, these symbols pop up often when you have a concise story.

Wolff: Well, they’re not symbols in the way that a high school English teacher teaches symbols. They are features of the story that a reader can probably sense some consequence without being able to define it. Yeah, at the end of “A Rich Brother,” Pete’s in a bit of a fog. But it’s also a very real fog. If you drive through that valley in California — the Central Valley, that time of night — you’re going to be in a fog. So what symbolism there is simply what life itself gives us. I mean, we actually navigate our lives by symbols. That is, by the outward signs that lead us in one direction or the other. Nature is filled with these things. And, of course, writers make use of them.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of endings, I think also of “Powder” and “Say Yes,” which have endings before the endings. In the sense that we think it’s going to end at a particular point, but, in fact, it ends before that point. And we are then forced to speculate upon where these characters are going. I mean, again, this supports the theory I’m throwing out at you that these concise stories have more going on or the action needs to be stopped at intervals.

Wolff: Well, the ending of a story, I think, contains all that the reader needs to have an intuition of how the story might continue. And they shouldn’t necessarily spell those things out, as some readers do. Tolstoy, for example, writes short stories as if they were novels. But to make a contrast, Chekhov draws enough of an arc that you imaginatively complete the circle yourself. You’re given all you need to do that. And my own practice as a short story writer has tended to gravitate toward that. One of the things I like about the story form is how much it can imply. Not as a kind of guessing game or some cute riddle you’re playing on the reader, but in the way that situations in life imply other situations. I mean, we actually, in our daily lives, become quite adept at intuition, at teasing out implications of present situations in order to get a sense of how the future might unfold. When we go out with a girl on the first time, we’re doing that. We have our first week at a new job, we’re doing that. We meet a new friend. We’re just constantly in these. It’s a very natural and emotional exercise that we do. And I try to find a way of expressing that in the forms of my stories. I don’t close things down because they aren’t closed down in life. The way that Tolstoy closes things down is that he has his characters die at the end. And that is a pretty neat way to do it. But they’re not going anywhere then. I love his stories, but they aren’t the kind of stories that I write.

* — One must point to good fiction coverage in Tanenhaus’s rag from time to time, with the unrealistic hope that such plaudits will correct unpardonable oversights elsewhere.