It sounds like it's all over the map, but the book really does embrace all three notions. Jack's life is far from cheerful and we feel every savage punch that life sends his way. What can we say? "I blubbered again in bed that night" (3.11) says "unhappy" about as clearly as anyone could wish for.
At the same time, we see how he copes by adopting a more hopeful stance, either by changing the present through his process of self-reinvention, or looking towards a brighter tomorrow that even he suspects will never come true:
It was burning bright for me when Chuck and I left Seattle and started the long drive home. (31.15)
How does he marry the yin of a tough life to the yang or wild hopes and dreams? By ruthlessly sticking to the truth. Wolff is very good about using his current grown-up perspective to show us the flaws in his spry young teenage thinking. He never sugar coats anything, but he also doesn't play the poor-little-me card when talking about the bad things that happened to him. Even when things are at their most emotional, like when Dwight stalked his mother and "tried to strangle her in the lobby of our apartment building," (31.6), he doesn't embellish. That just-the-facts-ma'am approach lets him marry to seemingly separate tones into one mighty autobiographical package.
This Boy's Life is non-fiction, and since it's told by its own subject, that lands it pretty clearly on autobiography's turf. Wolff writes about his own experiences, unexceptional in the grand scheme of things, but which helped make him into the person he became. Like a lot of biographies, it helps us get closer to the biograph-ee. But because Wolff's decisions didn't change world events or start a pop sensation or anything, it's intended to be a bit of an everyman story. Hopefully, we can see some of ourselves in Jack's life story, and maybe feel a little closer to people in general because of it.
Like a lot of titles, it pretty much cuts to the chase. It's a biography, it's about a boy, so… This Boy's Life seems a tad on the nose. It seems to suggest that there's something special about this boy, something different that we wouldn't see in other boys. But it also plays into a sense of the universal. All men were once boys after all, and "This" suggests that there's other boys who have lives as well. It brings up good question: why should we care about "this" boy? What's cool about him that wouldn't be with "that" boy or "the other" boy? All we have to do is open the book and find out.
Wolff is of two minds about the ending. On the one hand, we wants us to know that his life still has plenty of troubles… specifically by telling us that he got kicked out of prep school when "I broke the bank and was asked to leave" (31.11) and, even scarier, joined the Army just in time for Vietnam. There's also the fact that his father gets tossed in the nut hatch, which Jack finds out about "when his girlfriend called to say that he had gone crazy." (31.3) And the guy who's supposed to be taking care of him at his father's "embracing me and making declarations of love." (31.1) Even though Dwight's gone, Jack's life isn't getting any easier, and the dysfunctional wackiness of his early years will continue after we've read the final page.
But then after telling us all that, Wolff backs up to talk about the drive back to Chinook with Chuck before he leaves for prep school. They're happy. They're singing songs on the radio. Chuck isn't going to jail for rape and Jack finally has Dwight out of his life. They're celebrating… and hey, who wouldn't after missing out on such delightful possibilities? So even though we know things are going to stay bad, Wolff wants to leave us on a hopeful note.
Why? Probably to remind us that hope is always there. Jack has been through a wringer, with the evil stepdad and the beatings and the low hum of petty criminal-dom. But there are good things to look forward to and a belief that somehow it's all going to turn out okay. Dwight couldn't break his spirit (even though he broke plenty of other things), and Wolff wants to make sure we remember that when we put the book down. It might not get better, but Jack's a tough little guy and might just have the bounce-back tenacity to get through it.
The setting shifts a number of times in the book, as a part of Jack and his mom's nomadic, shifting lifestyle. But the bulk of it takes place in the delightful little town of Chinook, which is full of sad houses and exists only so people can work in the nearby power company. It's a bit of a prison with "the gracious, well-tended look of an old military camp, and that was what people called it—the camp." (8.17) It reflects Jack's bleak prospects pretty well. No personality. No opportunity. No way to stand out or make a name for yourself or even go somewhere that's marginally less soul-sucking. You just get to sit there are take it… like a prisoner.
Even more telling is Dwight's house, which is kind of like a Chinook-within-Chinook:
It wasn't really a house, but half a barracks where German prisoners of war had been quartered. (8.7)
Pretty fitting place for Jack's teenage imprisonment: an actual former prison in a town that feels like a prison, far away from anything non-prison-like.
We're betting that a lot of kids growing up in small towns are down with Jack's vibes here.
"The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has discovered."—Oscar Wilde
"He who fears corruption fears life."—Saul Alinsky
Toby gives us a double-whammy here, both of which have implications in the story. The first refers to young Jack's willingness to create his own identity—to tell people that he's something he clearly is not. Wilde suggests that that's what people do in life: that everyone is pretending to some extent or another, so it's okay if Jack does it. That's interesting because grown-up Toby doesn't seem to be entirely forgiving of young Jack's "Ima Be Who I Say I Am" shenanigans, but it's certainly in keeping with the book's tone.
The second one refers to a loss of innocence, which Jack experiences fairly early. He's quite the young hooligan, and clearly he gets a taste of the nasty side of life with Dwight. But again, the epigraph seems to write him a Get Out of Jail Free Card, since Alinsky says "hey, it's life." Young Jack was fairly big on getting away with stuff, so he probably would dig the implication.
Like a lot of great writers, Wolff works because he's very easy to get into. He speaks with a lot of eloquence, but he's not into fancy words and he gets right to his point (or at least sneaks up on it in an interesting way). He's writing about a teenager and wants to appeal to teen sensibilities. There's plenty of weighty thoughts here, but also an easy way of expressing them so that we don't waste any time hunting down a dictionary.
Wolff doesn't want to lose us to flowery phrases and poetic lyricism (which doesn't really fit his whole Portrait of the Hooligan as a Young Man approach anyway). His sentences are short and get to the point. "Dwight made a study of me." (11.1) "We were sitting in a corner table overlooking the water." (29.6) "I was a liar." (15.7) Pretty hard to misinterpret that stuff, or get lost in sentences that never seem to end.
At the same time, Wolff sometimes hints at stuff that exists just outside the frames. Feelings and emotions that aren't flat-out stated are still suggested by his prose. For instance, we don't know what happens between Roy and Jack's mom at the end of their relationship, but "she was singing to herself" (4.12) suggests that a great weight has been lifted from his mom. Wolff speculates on other people's emotions, but since he can't say for sure what they are, he lets his writing make the suggestion rather than stating things he doesn't know for sure.
We'll say "the Winchester," even though the same principle applies to guns in general. Jack loves guns. They make him feel big and strong, and more in control of his ridiculously out of control life:
I needed that rifle, for itself and for the way it completed me when I held it. (3.2)
"Completed," he says. Like it's a part of him, the same as a leg or an arm. That's pretty important: maybe even more important than parts of his real anatomy. He uses it to assert control over his life, most notably when he points it at passersby out the window:
I sometimes had to bit my lip to keep from laughing at the ecstasy of my power over them. (3.7)
Yikes. He's almost crazy in these circumstances; when someone laughs about perceived power that way, it's probably someone who has very little power in any other form. Hence, gaining some is the most important thing in the whole wide world.
Sadly for him, but happily for the victims of his shooting-spree-that-never happened, his power is an illusion. He can't actually use it, least he kill someone and go to jail for the rest of his life (which would make for a much different, more shiv-intensive story). Even when he gets away with it, he pays for it, like when he shoots the squirrel and "blubbered again in bed that night." (3.11).
It's a tough bind—he loves the illusion of power, but can't handle the reality—and it gets worse when Dwight shows up. (You could say that about a lot of things. Dwight's just that kind of guy.) But it comes out particularly in regards to the rifle, which Dwight first refuses to let him use at the turkey shoot and then sells without his permission to buy him Champion. Dwight takes ownership of the gun, which pretty much symbolizes his claim to Jack's perceived power. Stupid Dwight. Of course, Dwight can't use that power effectively either. "'That,' he said, 'is the most stupidly constructed firearm I have ever seen, bar none.'" (8.58) This, despite the fact that both Jack and Jack's mom can use it just fine. Dwight's just using it to excuse his own lack of power, and it's easy since the Winchester can't, you know, make an argument.
Power in the rifle really is an illusion, whether Jack's playing future mass murderer with it, or Dwight's trying to show how much control he has over Jack. You can't use it (not without lots of cranky cops getting involved), but it makes you feel like you can. That's a tough feeling to shake, even when its phoniness jumps up and down on you multiple times.
The Boy Scout uniforms are another sign of Jack's powerlessness, as well as Dwight's general jerk-wad tendencies. Dwight has a way of taking over anything that Jack likes and making it his own… ruining anything cool about it in the process.
As soon as we got home, Dwight sat down at the kitchen table with a glass of Old Crow and reviewed my performance. (11.23)
Ooh, alcohol and berating—the perfect way to end the evening. The nit-picking and general "it's all about me" tendencies find a pretty potent symbol in Jack and Dwight's uniforms. Dwight "gave me an outsize uniform that Skipper had once worn. For himself, he bought a new uniform and all the accouterments." (11.22) (Seriously, how does mom not catch on to this kind of thing way earlier?!)
Beyond just showing Dwight's status as a world-class tool (again), it demonstrates an appropriation of Jack's identity and a way to keeping him powerless. Scouting is supposed to be about Jack, but Dwight wants everyone to know who it's really about. (It's a testament to Jack's burgeoning uniform fetish that he sticks with it despite Dwight's put-downs.)
The beaver gets pretty potent… and we're not just talking about the smell. Part of it represents Dwight's general, um, Dwightness. He deliberately runs it over with his car and then pretends it's some kind of big trophy.
That pelt's worth fifty dollars, bare minimum. (10.6)
It's not, but Dwight's supposedly knowledgeable statement helps him assert his control and power over the situation. He also makes Jack a part of it by forcing him to pick it up and put it in the car.
Then, once he gets it into the curing tub, he promptly neglects it, losing its value and distorting it into something that would probably get the health inspector out to his house in a heartbeat. The mold that grows around it kind of looks like a beaver, but it's actually pretty hideous: just like Dwight's efforts to make a "normal" family make everything dysfunctional and awful. The beaver's pretty gross by the end of it, a fitting symbol of the kind of emotional entanglement Dwight and his jerkiness have brought.
Dwight's "trunkful of paint in five-gallon cans" (11.37) gets applied to his house in truly ridiculous ways. He paints the ceiling, the walls, all of the furniture, and even the keys to the piano… "all except the black ones, of course." (11.47) The overkill is supposed to impress Jack's mom. But it's overkill nonetheless.
More importantly, it's supposed to cover up the horrible reality of Dwight's world with shiny bright happiness that no one can ever, ever, ever displace. Ever. Of course, it doesn't eliminate anything. It just covers up the rot for a while until it all comes crashing out in hideous ugly ways. Pretty good description for family life under Dwight, isn't it? It's also a good sign of how Dwight thinks he can hide all that…
The Ford is Skipper's dream of escape, so much so that he "took a job at the power company and continued living at home so he could put all his money into the car." (12.2) It means everything to him. So, naturally, it gets thrashed around like a rented mule the first time he tries to take it out:
It looked like it had been sandblasted. The paint was pitted and dull. The hubcaps and bumpers and Laker pipes were also pitted, and beginning to rust. (13.36)
Kind of like everyone's dreams in the whole story. Even when they come true, the world is going to find some way to ruin them.
Yep. That's a teenager's point of view no doubt.
Norma tells Jack an urban legend called "The Hook" when Jack first arrives in Chinook: a story about a pair of teenage lovers who narrowly miss an attack from a hook-handed lunatic. It's completely fictitious, but Norma presents it as "a true story that Norma made me promise never to tell anyone ever." (11.5). That's symbolic of the kind of social dynamic Jack see every day… presenting complete balderdash as some kind of Gospel truth. Most of us have heard the Hook story before, but never as an "it happened to me" kind of thing the way Norma tells it. Truth and fiction blur pretty often in Jack's world. Nowhere more so than in a campfire story presented as gospel fact.
If you're writing an autobiography, this is the voice to use. You can't look at the events from anyone else's perspective but yours. More importantly, you're the hero of your own story, so you're going to be front and center for everything, no matter what happens. We see everything from Jack's point of view, and know only what he knows during the whole shebang. Sometimes he includes details that he learned later, like his father's Jewish heritage, which he "had to wait another ten years before learning." But even then, he takes time to tell us when he found out that information, so we don't get confused. Everything else is basically what he thinks while he's thinking it.
This is a loose definition, since Dwight's just a mean little man instead of a "dark power," but he does have control over Jack and he does make his life miserable. (Besides, we're pretty sure real dark powers don't smoke Camels.) Jack fights back, but he's wee and frightened and can't really get away.
It doesn't so much recede as enter a dull, steady routine that Jack can endure. He still hates Dwight and wants to get away from him, but he can handle the slings and arrows pretty darn well.
Yeah, this kind of blends into the last one. Jack pretty much sees life in Dwight's House as a living death, and…
Jack can't get away until his mom wakes up to who and what Dwight is. Apparently, that involves Jack almost losing a finger, then mom watching as Dwight knocks him down. It probably should have happened a lot earlier, but mom's got her own problems.
It's pretty miraculous to Jack, but pretty sensible in a lot of ways. Beating on mom's kid? Mom's going to take the kid away! And with a simple car ride, Jack gets clear of the dark Schlitz-drinking power, free to start his life anew.
The book's early scenes establish Jack's relationship with his mom, the fact that they move around from place to place, and Jack's need to make up stories about himself. We learn that Jack's mom dates serious losers, and some of them come after her in ways that would get them slapped with at least a restraining order in this day and age. This is mostly preamble, which gets us up to speed on Jack and his mom, showing us how they interact with each other (mostly by mom letting him get away with too much), and giving us a taste of Dwights to come with Roy. Once we're braced with the details, Wolff can move forward with the real fireworks.
The rising action fills up the bulk of the story, as Dwight marries Jack's mom and immediately sets out on a delightful pattern of verbal insults and borderline beatings. Jack struggles to find out who he is—adopting different poses or false fronts while search for ways to feel at home with himself—while fending off Dwight's half-baked plans and loose fists. The situation gets worse and worse, increasing the tension to a point where somebody pops. In this case, that means the loose fists get a whole lot tighter.
Things finally go overboard when Dwight shoves Jack and forces him to land on a badly injured finger. Jack's mom puts her foot down and makes a direct route for the exit. Suddenly, the biggest obstacle to Jack's happiness has been removed and the conflict between Dwight and Jack is resolved with a technical win for Team Jack. Dwight's gone, story's over.
Or not. Jack still has to deal with the kinds of wounds Dwight left—the kind that don't heal—while making sense of his new situation. It's a messy process that involves almost losing his foster home, getting kicked out of prep school and drinking more than a lad of his age should. The falling action shows us how life with Dwight has affected Jack, and how the struggle to find himself continues even when the psychotic Scoutmaster isn't pounding him into the pavement.
Since it's a biography, there's no "he lived happily ever after." Jack's life goes on just like everyone else's, so the book doesn't end so much as find a convenient place to stop. Wolff talks briefly about what happens to him after Dwight, and implying that more bad things are coming with the Vietnam War.
Then, having said that, he rolls back the clock a little bit to talk about him and his friend Chuck driving home to Seattle. They're hopeful and upbeat about the future: "we both had cause to rejoice and this helped us imagine we were friends." (31.17). He wants to end things on a happy note without letting us forget that life goes on and this isn't really the end (for better or for worse). So… we get a moment when things are happy and a reminder that things will get less happy soon. A decent place to end, considering the circumstances.
In keeping with tradition, Act I begins at the beginning, as Jack and his mother drive across country to Utah. It ends at the conclusion of Part 2, with Jack's mom agreeing to marry Dwight and the two moving up to Chinook.
Act II comprises most of the book, from the beginning of Part 3 until the end of Part 5… call it Part 5, Chapter 5. Dwight beats on Jack, Jack rages back and they go at in until Part 5, Chapter 6 where it all comes to a head.
Act III lands in our laps fairly quickly because—while we can sense the build-up—there's no sign that this incident will be the one that breaks the floodgates. But break it does, from Part 5, Chapter 6 to the end of the book, detailing Jack's escape from Dwight and immediate mop-up operations.
In Chapter 21, Dwight refers to President John F. Kennedy as "the senator from Rome." Kennedy was a Roman Catholic—the first non-Protestant ever to be elected President—and that was a big deal when he was running. Some people were afraid that he would take his orders from the Church instead of the American public. Kennedy addressed the issue in his campaign (which NPR has kindly reprinted for us). That clearly holds no stock with Dwight, who we suspect is not the most open-minded man in the world.
Annette, the Disney Mouseketeer who Toby mashes on, was actually Annette Funicello, who launched a lengthy career by starring as a preteen crush object on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt Disney discovered her at the age of twelve, performing in a Southern California production of Swan Lake. He cast her on The Mickey Mouse Club starting in 1955, as well as giving her roles in Disney movies like The Shaggy Dog and Babes in Toyland. She even had a singing contract with Disney studios, cranking out the bubble gum for eager teenyboppers of the era.
Walt was apparently very protective of Annette's image… which means she probably broke his heart when she went full Miley-status and started making more risqué beach party movies in the 1960s. They're pretty tame by today's standards, but the sight of Annette traipsing with Frankie Avalon in various flavors of bikini was very un-Disney. Despite showing off discreet portions of her now-grown-up lady parts, the beach movies retain an air of wholesomeness to them, which cemented Annette's girl-next-door credentials.
Mommy-dom interrupted her show biz career and she stayed out of the spotlight while raising her three kids. She divorced her first husband, Jack Gilardi, in 1981, and married her second and final husband Glen Holt in 1986. In the meantime, she showed up in the occasional commercial and kept close ties to the Disney company. She reunited with Frankie Avalon in 1987's Back to the Beach, a parody of her old 60s movies. Then in 1992, she announced that she suffered from multiple sclerosis. She'd hoped to keep it private, but the media, in its infinite compassion, noticed that she had trouble walking and linked it to a nonexistent case of alcoholism. She acted as a spokesperson for those suffering from MS and helped raise money to combat the disease throughout the last 20 years of her life. She died in 2013 at the age of 70, from complications due to MS.
When Jack first comes to live in Chinook, Norma tells him a story about her and her boyfriend peeling away in his car, only to find a bloody hook on the door handle. This is an old urban legend, used to scare kids from time immemorial. It goes a little something like this: two lovers are parked out in the wood, getting on with the serious business of what lovers do when parked out in the woods. A news bulletin over the radio warns residents that an inmate from a local insane asylum has escaped, and that he has a steel hook for a right hand. The girl gets scared and wants to go home, but the boy wants to keep making out. The girl gets more and more insistent. Finally, the boy gives in: irritated that he won't be getting any, he slams the car in gear and speeds off back to town.
When he gets back to the girl's house, he comes around to let her out of the car. Then he stops, turns white as a sheet, and faints dead away. When the girl looks to see what upset him, she sees a bloody, steel hook hanging from the door handle.
(For best results, try to tell this around a campfire at night or with a flashlight under your face. Also, make sure you scream as loud as you can when you get to the punch-line.)
The story isn't true: it's a bit of folklore, which people pass around because it sounds really cool. The fact that it's presented as true help confirm its credentials, possibly making it even scarier.