We can just as easily put "Coming of Age" here instead of transformation, but "Transformation" does just as well. Jack constantly tries to change who he is in This Boy's Life: to put on different masks and pass himself off as something he isn't. Ironically, in the process, he changes his core being far more than any of the masks he wears. He learns to love and appreciate storytelling, he finds he has a knack for writing, and—most importantly—he gets a very good idea of who he really is. Okay, some of that involves low-key hooliganism and some rather ugly habits from Dwight. But it is a transformation… starting before he enters high school and continuing even after Wolff has finished writing the story.
Jack's transformation is something extraordinary, something that very few other people have ever experienced.
Jack's transformation, though uniquely his own, is typical of teenagers who come of age and could happen to anyone.
Jack's permanent family in This Boy's Life is his mother, who he loves but who is low-key kind of nuts. To that, he gets Dwight and Dwight's brood, who range from the indifferent to the flat-out psychotic. It's a pretty dysfunctional family, even though they're all trying to pretend that it's normal and happy. They stick to the surface details of what they should do—tending to appearances instead of doing things like loving and caring about each other. Some real love slips in there, but by and large, family here is about who they try to be instead of who they really are. (Nobody thinks of themselves as an abusive alcoholic…or a sponge for that matter.)
Jack is rebellious because he wants a "real" family and can't have one.
Jack would be rebellious even if he had a "real" family like the kind he wants.
Hand in hand with family comes the Home… something Jack doesn't really have since he and his mom essentially live the lives of wandering Gypsies in the story. People in This Boy's Life think of home as a specific place: a house where they can live and be safe. Even Dwight wants that, despite the fact that "home" can't really exist in the same place as "angry fists." Part of Jack's journey is looking for the feeling that home brings, and the hope that the next place—wherever it is—will be that place. He's still looking when the book ends, suggesting that he's never going to find it (or at least, if he does, that it's not going to be the Christmas-presents-and-Scout-jamborees place that he imagines it is).
Jack can find a home if he looks hard enough and the right circumstances show up.
Because of who Jack is—shaped by circumstances and mom and wicked stepfathers—Jack can never truly find a home.
Jack is, to put it mildly, a fibber. So are a lot of other characters, but Jack really raises it to an art form. The question isn't that Jack lies; it's why he lies (besides the obvious answers, like impressing girls and getting out of trouble). This Boy's Life is all about the search for identity and belonging: the way insecure square peg Jack can find his square hole without getting hammered into the wrong one by guys like Dwight. His lies aren't so much deception as a way to reinvent himself: to find some identity that he likes and stick with it. As you may suspect, unless you're Madonna, it's not the greatest way to go about finding yourself.
Jack's lies help him find out who he really is.
Jack's lies are a distraction and only keep him from discovering his true identity.
Religion doesn't play a central role in This Boy's Life, but it's kind of lurking there in the background from time to time. It's especially prominent early on, when Sister James tries to make a Catholic out of Jack. Part and parcel of that is guilt, where Jack grapples with the things he's done to other people, and the way people often blame him for things. It doesn't stop him from doing bad things, but it's interesting where and when he applies it. Guilt seems to spring from his own mind, and exists independently (or at least semi-independently) of other people's attempts to blame him. That makes it very personal, and maybe even a little spiritual as well.
Jack's guilt is completely self-inflicted.
Jack's guilt is heaped upon him by other people and he has to find a way to develop his identity around it.
As a poor teenage boy, Jack doesn't have what we traditionally associate with power in This Boy's Life. (He would if he got bit by a radioactive spider, but then this would be an entirely different kind of story.) He's keenly aware of his powerlessness and looks for ways to change that. He gets into guns. He advances through the ranks of the Boy Scouts. He tries to manipulate people with his lies and stories. All of them are attempt to grab some kind of power, and through it exercise control over his life that he really doesn't feel he has.
Jack sees power as the key to his identity.
Jack's identity has nothing to do with how helpless or empowered he feels.
Jack comes of age in This Boy's Life, which means he has manliness on his mind: how to show it, who to exercise it and what that makes him as a human being. Dwight is also focused on masculinity—specifically, on "making a man" out of Jack, which doesn't go quite the way he'd planned. Either way, we got us a helping of macho here, which Jack tries to work his way through in a typical halting and awkward teenage manner. We've all been there big guy, though admittedly, it didn't always involve a boxing match with our best friend to do it.
Jack's search for masculinity is compounded by the fact that he lives with his mother.
Jack's mother helps him learn to be a man (either deliberately or inadvertently).
Every teenager engages in a pitched battle against The Way Things are Done. With Jack, it's kind of a two-edged sword in This Boy's Life. He rebels against the rules… but he's also looking for a set of rules he can believe in. He desperately wants to find some system that makes sense, and is constantly disappointed when he can't… which leads him to rebel until the next batch of potential rules comes along. It's a bit of a mess. Then again, that seems to fit with Jack's life pretty well, doesn't it?
Jack rebels because he can't find a set of rules that work for him.
Jack doesn't rebel so much as try to find his own rules.
Jack has dreams just like everyone else. So does his mom, his friends, Martin Luther King, and even Dwight (though Dwight's dreams are probably these freaky David Lynch numbers where everything is spray painted white.) Dreams are even more important to Jack in This Boy's Life because his reality is pretty darn crummy. They become a way for him to look towards something better down the road… which in turn helps him get out of bed without screaming every day. Dreams are something of a double-edged sword though. Sure, they make things seem less crummy for Jack, but they also blind him to certain facts he needs to come to grips with if he's going to go on to do something other than shoplift all his life.
Jack's dreams end up helping him, even when they don't come true.
Jack's dreams aren't helpful; they only blind him to the real world he needs to deal with.