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This Boy's Life

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  23,432 ratings  ·  1,355 reviews
This unforgettable memoir, by one of our most gifted writers, introduces us to the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move, yet they develop an extraordinarily close, almost telepathic relationship. As Toby fights for identi ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published January 20th 2000 by Grove Press (first published 1989)
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Mick Guinn I'm just going to speculate here, because it's an interesting question, but while Tobias is 15 years older than me, we had some similar experiences in…moreI'm just going to speculate here, because it's an interesting question, but while Tobias is 15 years older than me, we had some similar experiences in the search for male mentorship. There is even the sense that a bad male mentor (Dwight) is better than none, as Wolff's mother seems to indicate.

For me, Wolff’s brief reference to this event is telling for a couple of reasons (at least for me).

Homosexuality was thought to be one of the scariest aspects of boyhood in growing up. I remember clearly worrying, once we understood what it was in our early teens, that we'd turn gay. There was little enlightened thought on this topic in the 70s among boys. On top of that, it's statistically very common for younger boys as they're coming of age to begin to play with each other in sexual ways. Jack has this experience, brief though it may be, when he kisses Arthur presumably out of curiosity.

"One night he kissed me, or I kissed him, or we kissed each other. It surprised us both. After that, whenever we felt particularly close, we turned on each other."

If Wolff’s experience was in any way similar to my own, he probably felt shame and fear about these early innocent and natural explorations that happened before it was clear this was a very “wrong” or “unmanly” thing for boys to do. The sins of the 12 year old come back to haunt the 15-year old.

Arthur being called a “sissy” out loud is also a “fighting word.” For me, he validates the culture at the time that this was about as bad a thing as you could call another boy. If you didn’t fight about it, you were basically acknowledging it must be true. Wolff never says whether Arthur grows up and eventually comes out as a gay man, but I think it’s implied, especially as he writes about how Arthur treats his “girlfriend.”

As to my own experience of pulling away from my father as he fell down repeatedly from his job of parenting after my mother left him, I found myself in more risky situations than I might have been. I was out more at night and just starting to enjoy beer and pot. I was out at night with or without his knowledge and I found myself with older teenagers and some men. I recall quite clearly being the target of men who would “come on” to me. Whether it was flirtatious talk laden with innuendo, or an actual hand on the thigh, it was pretty scary when I stupidly realized what was happening. I’d wager that my experience is not wholly uncommon for a lot of boys becoming men.

When the incident in question occurs, Wolff is older, but still a boy who has yet again been abandoned by the older, presumedly wiser men. Geoffrey, his 6 year older brother is gone, and his birthfather has abandoned him. Blood abandons. When this friend they leave him with makes a move on Tobias, it’s just another betrayal from a man in power. It’s a different kind of betrayal, but just as powerful in its own way.

I think Wolff includes this incident to both indicate another abandonment by family (everyone in his family abandoned him, including his mother to the sadist Dwight), another betrayal of trust from a guardian (in this case sexual assault rather than being beaten up), and cadence of sorts to his relationship with the guy who should have been his best friend for life, Arthur Gayle. One wonders if “Gayle” is really Arthur’s last name, or Wolff used it to confirm our suspicions about his sexual preference.

Great question. Not sure if my musings are correct, but it was good think more deeply about this moment that did sort of fly by.


TaylorT We read this memoir as a freshman class in high school. It wasn't too bad. Some swearing, sexual things, stealing and such but reveals a lot about the…moreWe read this memoir as a freshman class in high school. It wasn't too bad. Some swearing, sexual things, stealing and such but reveals a lot about the time. Definitely not middle or elementary but high school up is good. (less)

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 ·  23,432 ratings  ·  1,355 reviews

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Oct 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Part of moving from being a teenager to a functional adult is seeking your own identity outside of what friends and family think of you. Tobias Wolff’s struggle with this is in part what makes this book such a great read. Although he grew up in 1950’s Washington state and his life experiences are somewhat different from mine, it’s the core of feelings of being a teenager that never change and are the same no matter what your circumstances.

Part of what makes Wolff’s struggle that much harder is t
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
How Do Any of Us Survive?

This is the fourth memoir of a less than ideal childhood I’ve read in as many weeks. I have to say it’s getting a bit old, all this overcoming adversity stuff. But I think it’s safe to say that Tolstoy had it wrong: Unhappy families are just as unvarying and just as routine as happy ones. But at least occasionally the unhappy ones are interesting, sometimes even revelatory.

Wolfe’s memoir is interesting to me because he understands how his childhood shaped his culture -
Jason Koivu
Aug 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: autobiography, humor
I don't know if I've been specifically targeting good reads subconsciously or if I've just been lucky that they're falling into my lap. Regardless, the kinda funny, a little sad, quite insightful This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff struck the old chord with me and continued that trend. Long may it last!

As a somewhat rudderless boy myself I enjoyed this story of a somewhat rudderless boy growing up with only a transient mother and the occasional uncaring, abusive stepfather. This is a fairly typical
Bob Newman
Oct 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Life is a turkey shoot

Yeah, you know, sometimes you shoot so well and win the turkey, sometimes you lose, and sometimes there isn't even any turkey. You could try to be honest and keep your nose clean, but it doesn't guarantee anything. A screwed-up kid who lies, cheats, forges documents, drinks, and steals, not to mention damaging property, gets kicked out of schools, but winds up with a degree from Oxford, a nationally-famous writer and professor at one of the best universities. He writes clea
J.K. Grice
Oct 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bio-memoir
I saw the movie with Leo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro many years before reading this book. I loved the film and I also think it does justice to this fine book. Very poignant and engaging throughout. THIS BOY'S LIFE is an excellent read.
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Jan 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Find all of my reviews at:

I read this book almost two months ago and have struggled to come up with some kind (any kind) of review. Sometimes when I read a memoir I’m struck with the question “what made this person think their personal history was novel worthy?” Such is the case with This Boy’s Life. Sure Tobias Wolf had a shitty childhood, but when compared to other autobiographies (Night stands out as the most monumental personal history I can think of, or ev
Ruth Turner
May 14, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned


I read just over half before calling it quits.

Toby’s life really wasn’t as bad as I expected. Whether or not that’s because of the way he tells his story, I’m not sure. It was flat and lacked feeling; very matter-of-fact.

The narrative itself seemed endless. It’s dreary, slow and boring. It also jumps around at times, enough to be confusing.

All this was bad enough, but I soldiered valiantly onwards...until it came to Toby beating the family dog with a floor mop. A hunting dog that hid in fear
Aug 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013, aere-perennius
“Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end."


"Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.”
― Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life

One of my favorite memoirs of all time. IT was perfect in its pacing, its pitch. It was a beautiful, but unsentimental look at youth, poverty, f
Jan 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Sarah
Recommended to Malbadeen by: Sarah's couch
Shelves: memoir-ish
I can't very well articulate why this book elicited a 5 star response from me, which is why I enjoyed it so much. Despite not being able to put my finger on it, I found myself wanting to get back to it all the time.
Not a reaction I typically have to memoirs by established authors.
He spoke in away that maintained the feel of adolescence without condescending hindsight or grandiose naivety. The writing seems so simple and concise and yet there were numerous times when I had to fight my urge to und
This Boy's Life is a memoir about the author Tobias Wolff. Although, for most of this book he picks a different name-- Jack. I immediately got swept up in the life of Jack and his mother as they leave place after place, boyfriend after boyfriend. We start as they leave from Florida to head to Utah and we quickly understand the instability of Jack's life. Eventually she re-marries a crazy man named Dwight, who constantly is on some power trip and takes control of Jack's life. That is, until he ta ...more
May 09, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adults
Tobias Wolff was a professor at Stanford. He was my friend Laurel's Italian partner. His friends called him Toby. He scared the bejesus outta me. This is technically unfair, as I never once spoke to him or took one of his classes. I think it was the mustache that did it. It was a very intimidating mustache.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the book, which I loved. I just thought you'd like to know.
Jul 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: estadounidense
En Vida de este chico, Tobias Wolff nos deja entrar en ciertas impresiones sobre su infancia y adolescencia.

Lejos de los áticos del Upper East Side, del footing matutino por Central Park, de los brunchs exclusivos de fin de semana de las chicas de Sex and the City en los que se dan encuentros de conversaciones banales en los que se comenta la adquisición de los últimos “Manolos” (zapatos de tacón imposible de Manolo Blahnik –aclaración para los no entendidos en la materia-) y se habla de la form
da AL
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well done. Honest story of how we must overcome our demons lest they consume us ...
Alberto Delgado
May 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Buen libro en el que el escritor novela sus recuerdos de adolescencia mientras recorria los estados unidos junto a su madre divorciada. Esta llena de humor entre toques dickensianos. Hay también una buena adaptación cinematografica protagonizada por un adolescente Di Caprio en el papel protagonista y Robert de Niro.
Mar 10, 2009 rated it liked it
This memoir would be overwhelmingly sad for me, had I not already read Old School by the same author and know that he becomes a successful author and teacher of literature at Stanford. But if you didn’t know that this child redeems himself in the end, this would be sad, a sad tale indeed.

Tobias’ parents divorced when he was a young boy, and his mother set off looking for a better life, leaving her oldest son with her ex-husband. In 1955 it was hard for a single mother, and life treated Tobias’
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Read this back in 2003, remembered it fondly but 4 stars since I somehow don't remember the plot very well. The movie ahead of the reading poisoned it somewhat methinks.
This is a very emotional and touching tale about a young boy growing up with a hopeless mother and an abusive step-father. The author describes his childhood in ways that almost anyone can relate to. While you can feel the angst of the writer's plight, you can also laugh you tits off at the hilarity he chooses to make out of it in his later and wiser years. It's impressive that this juvenile delinquent turned out to be such a famous writer. This novel was not only well written, it was a funny an ...more
Charles White
Apr 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This has to go straight to my favorites of all time. The prose is as generous and truthful as anything I've ever read.
David Quinn
Apr 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The opening acknowledgements had me thinking this would be a breezy comic memoir ("My first stepfather used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book. Well, here it is.") It's very funny and moves well throughout but to say it's breezy is a gross mischaracterization.

The book takes its title from an adaptation of the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America (Boy's Life), one of the seemingly few positive influences on the author when he was younger (i.e. the Scouts, not the magazine)
Aug 09, 2009 added it
Shelves: read-2009
Tobias Wolff is a man known to those who love short stories as something of a master of the form. His novel, Old School failed to capitalize on his brilliance of the short form, so I must admit to some qualms about his memoir. I couldn't have been more wrong. Wolff analyses his upbringing with the clarity of an outsider, giving us insight into his deeds and (more frequently) misdeeds. From constant travels with his single mother escaping a bad relationship to an abusive step father, from mocking ...more
❤Marie Gentilcore
3.5 stars. It was an interesting and well written memoir. It's funny how listening to another's life experiences make you think about your own experiences and those of others. My dad is a few years older than Tobias and some of the things Tobias wrote about mirrors stories my dad has told about times spent with his friends when he was a boy and teen. Now I'm I'll have to check out the movie adaptation that stars a very young Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.
Dec 31, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: heard
Exquisitely written, desperately honest memoir that was incredibly difficult to read. I had to keep walking away, but I kept coming back for more. I am coming away from this wanting to read every word Wolff ever wrote, right away. He's so penetratingly analytical, so able to distance himself from his adolescent pretensions without disavowing the, so incisive and so true. He broke my heart, over and over and over. The prose is knife-like, crystalline and icy. I recommend it.
Jun 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
In a time when conversations about creative nonfiction are preoccupied by concerns of truth in memoir, the nature of consciousness, identity, and fragmentation, it can be easy to forget about fundamentals like story. Important in and of themselves, these big conversations signal that a necessary codification of the genre has emerged and continues to grow.

But the meta conversations can get tedious, grandiose, even absurd, and sometimes we need to remember that readers come for the story and stay
Cindy Knoke
Oct 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The four best memoirs I have ever read, and I have read too many, are Frank McCort’s, Angela’s Ashes, “Tobias Wolff’s, “This Boy’s Life,” Geoffrey Wolff’s, “The Duke of Deception,” and Jeanette Walls, “The Glass Castle.”

These books are similar in describing horrendous childhood’s of upheaval and instability, complicated by mentally ill, vagabond, eccentric parents, and a sort of lower middle class poverty. (I know that’s an oxymoron, read the books and you’ll understand). But the similarities go
Monty J Heying
Oct 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
To write a memoir is to sift through and make sense one's personal experience that were laid down in our heads when we were much younger, then arrange them into a compelling and comprehensible story. Reframing is necessary because the writer has matured. The eyes behind the pen are not the eyes that witnessed what is being written. This book is a mature and evolved retrospective about coming of age in the American 1950-60s.

It's a good book that I appreciated more fully after I saw the movie (Rob
Emer Martin
Apr 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I was struck reading other reviews of this book that many stated that it read so well it could have been a novel and not a memoir. What struck me also was that he chose some incidents that showed him in an awful light, beating a poor frightened dog with a mop, being one of them. However, Wolff is such a good writer I didn't care how many dogs he beat. The voice in the book carried me through the relative mundane, rainy, overcast world of a grim childhood in the gloom of Washington State. The loc ...more
Having just finished The Night in Question, I was looking forward to reading this. Though a memoir (not my usual choice) that is based on Wolff's childhood as opposed to a collection of short stories, I still had high hopes.

It was okay. The writing was strong and the author consistently provided lots of interesting insight about life in general, however, I just never really got into the story. The character I found most intriguing, his mother, a complex dichotomy whom Wolff describes as strong a
Feb 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Didn't always love this, but I loved the way Wolff inhabited his character—he manages to portray his younger self as simultaneously troubled and sympathetic; young Jack is often wildly unlikable, but in a way that tells us that the author knows that his character-self is unlikable. No apologies, just 'here it is'. His portraits of other people are so black-and-white in that way that manages to show both Jack's perspective and the ways in which they did have shades of grey. I don't know what to d ...more
Aaron Devine
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Asami Uchiha
I had to read this for school . . . it was an intriguing memoir to read.

That being said I FINALLY FINISHED IT!!!!! YAY!

2.5 stars
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Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is a writer of fiction and nonfiction.

He is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, although he has written two novels.

Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative Writ
“Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.” 109 likes
“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever” 40 likes
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