Before he was Toby Wolff, Acclaimed Author Extraordinaire, he was Toby Wolff, Troubled Young Man. This Boy's Life tries to sort out the source of those troubles. It starts with Toby's mom, whom he loves as much as any boy should, but who has a flighty way of falling for abusive guys. She marries one of them—a real charmer named Dwight who makes young Toby's life pretty miserable, but also helps shape who he's become…just like how Dwight tried to help Toby become a spy in The Office.
Wolff survived those experiences and a stint in Vietnam to become a successful short story author. He won some big-time awards, including the Rhea Award for the Short Story in 1989, the same year that This Boy's Life came out. The memoir was a huge hit… so much so in fact that they made a movie out of it in 1993 starring an earnest young pre-Titanic actor by the name of Leonardo DiCaprio—you might have heard of him
There's a good reason for all that love. Wolff is brutally honest about who he was as a kid and the kind of effect his years with Dwight had on him. He was a troublemaker, even before Dwight showed up, and he shows us how his hell-raising qualities got worse under Dwight's abusive efforts to "make a man" out of him. And no, this isn't the inspiration for Mulan.
And yet, it's also a very hopeful book, full of the power of dreams and the way we discover who we are. It's very sad in a lot of ways—those dreams really don't work out—but it also shows how you can survive various disasters, move forward with your life, and write a book about it later. And isn't that what life's really all about?
What, the fact that Leo DiCaprio played the author isn't enough for you? Okay, how about "anyone who has ever been a teenager can relate to what Wolff is rapping about?"
This Boy's Life revels in the author's futile efforts to be a good boy, to find consistent rules to live by, and to make people respect him. It doesn't work out that way, and even while he tries to be good, he kind of revels in being bad—just like Rihanna. You don't see that duality in most stories like this, and more importantly, you don't feel the notion of a life going seriously wrong.
Most biographies address that struggle, but deal with it as "just kids' stuff." The subject goes through it, grows out of it, and moves on. The end. In Wolff's world, those successes and failures have heavy-duty implications. We feel them in ways we don't with other coming-of-age stories. And let's face it, most of us go through that essential struggle of teendom walking the line between good and bad. Heck, take a look at Miley Cyrus.
Do you ever get angry at your teachers for adhering to arbitrary rules? Ever engineer some futile act of rebellion that doesn't actually make you feel better? Toby did, and he wrote it down in handy form for you to read along. You can revel in the fact that you don't have someone like Dwight in your life, or commiserate in case you do. Most importantly, This Boy's Life understands that it's not just teenage drama. It really matters.
Professor Wolff's Home Page
In addition to writing, Tobias Wolff has taught literature at Temple, Syracuse, and Stanford. Here's his Stanford bio.
Penn State's biography of Wolff
Penn State fills in the details of Wolff's life after This Boy's Life.
This Boy's Life
The movie version came out in 1993, starring hunky preteen Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack and an extremely scary Robert De Niro as Dwight. It's widely available, but beware: they change some things from the book.
The Guardian Interview
The UK newspaper The Guardian interviews Tobias Wolff. (Man, it's easier to do that when the author is still alive.)
The Paris Review Interview
Unwilling to let the English do anything by themselves, the Paris Review interviews Wolff as well.
Leonardo Di Caprio Interview
The ever resourceful YouTube found a brief interview with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio talking about working on This Boy's Life.
Leonardo DiCaprio talks about This Boy's Life during the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award for Robert De Niro. Sounds like they dug each other.
The Big Read Interview
An interview with Tobias Wolff courtesy of the NEA's The Big Read.
Scene from This Boy's Life
Here's a clip from the movie version of This Boy's Life, which the poster describes as "funny" even though it involves rampant child abuse. The Internet is a scary, scary place sometimes.
A Shot from the Movie
One big, happy family in a scene from the movie. Notice that Dwight's uniform is much nicer than Jack's.
A Shot of Wolff
Toby. And his mighty mustache.
And now, Leo!
Just an adorable shot of adorable Leo being adorable in the movie. Because he has fans.