Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” and Why I Was Wrong About Memoir

Sean VanSickel

Tobias Wolff’s book is one of those literary memoirs that helped define the genre. His recollections of a troubled boyhood often reflect poorly on the child he was, but are told with such a sense of truth and directness in his own self-reflection that the narrator remains sympathetic. He is never in any danger of being uninteresting.

Wolff’s prose is unmistakably masculine, even as he probes into his own youthful insecurities with sensitivity and care. This balance is a big part of the books sense of cohesion. The specificity of focus allows for certain thematic elements (self-invention, deceit, rebellion) to emerge as a driving thematic presence in an equally compelling narrative.

Up until the last two years, (or thereabouts -I’m terrible with personal timelines) I had been extremely cynical about memoir as a genre, dismissing such projects as needlessly self-involved, pandering to a literary market, and hopelessly misguided with regard…

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