This Boy's Life


First published in 1989, this memoir has become a classic in the genre. With this book, Wolff essentially launched the memoir craze that has been going strong ever since. It was made into a movie in 1993.

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff electrified critics with his scarifying 1989 memoir, which many deemed as notable for its artful structure and finely wrought prose as for the events it describes. The story is pretty grim: Teenaged Wolff moves with his divorced mother from Florida ...

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First published in 1989, this memoir has become a classic in the genre. With this book, Wolff essentially launched the memoir craze that has been going strong ever since. It was made into a movie in 1993.

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff electrified critics with his scarifying 1989 memoir, which many deemed as notable for its artful structure and finely wrought prose as for the events it describes. The story is pretty grim: Teenaged Wolff moves with his divorced mother from Florida to Utah to Washington State to escape her violent boyfriend. When she remarries, Wolff finds himself in a bitter battle of wills with his abusive stepfather, a contest in which the two prove to be more evenly matched than might have been supposed. Deception, disguise, and illusion are the weapons the young man learns to employ as he grows up—not bad training for a writer-to-be. Somber though this tale of family strife is, it is also darkly funny and so artistically satisfying that listeners come away exhilarated.

The award-winning novelist's best-selling memoir.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wolff’s well-regarded 1989 chronicle of his difficult childhood and adolescence is already considered a contemporary classic, and an avatar—for better and for worse—of the current memoir frenzy. Wyman reads with a certain downturned tone, where each sentence drifts into a melancholy fog. Try as he might, Wyman cannot lift the funk that hangs over Wolff’s tale of youthful desperation and ambition, and ultimately adopts the book’s bittersweet, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone. Wyman collapses the distance between himself and the book’s narrator, so that we eventually come to mistake him for Wolff’s Toby. A Grove paperback. (Sept.)
The Chicago Tribune - Richard Russo
“Wonderfully funny ...What a fine story.”
—Richard Russo, The Chicago Tribune
“A jewel-like memoir of childhood in the 1950s . . . Lucid, bitter, precise, terribly sad: the real-life equivalent of Wolff’s acclaimed fiction.”
Publishers Weekly
“Authentic and endearing.”
Publishers Weekly
“Wyman’s reading is believable and often touching.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This Boy’s Life is as fine as any of Wolff’s novels. It is honest and pure, without a trace of self-pity.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“A coming-of-age-with-pluck remembrance that is heartwarming and heartbreaking, deadly funny, deeply serious, achingly real.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A work of genuine literary art . . . as grim and eerie as Great Expectations, as surreal and cruel as The Painted Bird, as comic and transcendent as Huckleberry Finn.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The New York Times
“So absolutely clear and hypnotic . . . that a reader wants to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully.”
The New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle
“[This] extraordinary new memoir is so beautifully written that we not only root for the kid Wolff remembers, but we also are moved by the universality of his experience.”
San Francisco Chronicle
The Oregonian
“Wolff’s genius is in his fine storytelling. This Boy’s Life reads and entertains as easily as a novel. Wolff’s writing and timing are superb, as are his depictions of those of us who endured the ’50s.”
The Oregonian
The New York Times Book Review
“Consistently entertaining—richer, darker, and funnier than anything else Tobias Wolff has written.”
The New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Wolf writes in language that is lyrical without embellishment, defines his characters with exact strokes and perfectly pitched voices, creates suspense around ordinary events, locating deep mystery within them. . . . To the rich fiction of childhood that ranges from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye, Wolff has contributed his superb memoir.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
The New Yorker
“A finely composed and fastidiously voiced recollection of a troubled adolescence.”
The New Yorker
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“What emerges from this memoir is an absorbing story of a boy we are glad to have met, and a man whose next book we eagerly await.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Chicago Tribune
“Wonderfully funny ...What a fine story.”
—Richard Russo, The Chicago Tribune
— Richard Russo
Time magazine
Time magazine
The New York Times Magazine
“At once compassionate and deeply disturbing . . . ”
The New York Times Magazine
The Atlantic Monthly
“Some of [Wolff’s] brattish misdeeds are funny, some are pathetic, and all are amazing, because it seems so unlikely that the bewildered juvenile nuisance was to become the excellent writer he is.”
The Atlantic Monthly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Wolff's fourth book, he recounts his coming-of-age with customary skill and self-assurance. Seeking a better life in the Northwestern U.S. with his divorced mother, whose ``strange docility, almost paralysis, with men of the tyrant breed'' taught Wolff the virtue of rebellion, he considered himself ``in hiding,'' moved to invent a private, ``better'' version of himself in order to rise above his troubles. Primary among these were the adultsdrolly eccentric, sometimes dementedwho were bent on humiliating him. Since Wolff the writer never pities Wolff the boy, the author characterizes the crew of grown-up losers with damning objectivity, from the neurotic stepfather who painted his entire house (piano and Christmas tree included) white, to the Native American football star whose ultimate failure was as inexplicable as his athletic brilliance. Briskly and candidly reportedWolff's boyhood best friend ``bathed twice a day but always gave off an ammoniac hormonal smell, the smell of growth and anxiety''his youth yields a self-made man whose struggle to fit the pieces together is authentic and endearing. Literary Guild alternate. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner award for The Barracks Thief , Wolff offers an engrossing and candid look into his childhood and adolescence in his first book of nonfiction. In unaffected prose he recreates scenes from his life that sparkle with the immediacy of narrative fiction. The result is an intriguingly guileless book, distinct from the usual reflective commentary of autobiography, that chronicles the random cruelty of a step father, the ambiguity of youthful friendships, and forgotten moments like watching The Mickey Mouse Club. Throughout this youthful account runs the solid thread of the author's respect and affection for his mother and a sense of wonder at the inexplicable twistings and turnings of the road to adulthood in modern America. Highly recommended. Linda Rome, Mentor, Ohio
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615730889
  • Publisher: HighBridge Company
  • Publication date: 7/27/2010
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged; 10 hours on 9 CDs
  • Sales rank: 1,002,817
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Tobias Wolff
TOBIAS WOLFF was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1945. He is the author of several works, including In Pharaoh’s Army, a finalist for the National Book Award, and the novel, The Barracks Thief, which won the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.


Although Tobias Wolff has described his own youthful self as a liar and an imposter, he has achieved in his writing a level of honesty so unflinching it is almost painful to read. The author of two groundbreaking literary memoirs and several volumes of autobiographical fiction (short and long), Wolff is not just willing to lay bare his pretenses and self-deceptions; he feels an obligation to do so. Like Rumpelstilskin, he has spun experience, memory, and a remarkable gift for storytelling into literary gold.

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Wolff barely knew his largely absent father, a man he and his older brother Geoffrey (also a writer) have described as a con artist and a compulsive liar. While he was still young, Wolff's parents officially split up. Geoffrey went to live with his father; Tobias stayed with his mother, who moved around from state to state in a steady, westerly progression that finally landed them in Washington. Never a good judge of character where men were concerned, his mother married an abusive martinet who made her son's life miserable. Wolff recounted his misspent, miserable youth in This Boy's Life, a groundbreaking 1989 memoir that later became a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro.

Wolfe escaped his troubled home environment by falsifying an application to a private boys' school in the East and fabricating a resumé so remarkable it got him in. He flunked out before graduating, enlisted in the military, and was sent to Vietnam -- an experience he chronicled in a second memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, published in 1994. When he was discharged from service, he visited England, fell in love with the country, and studied, with the help of tutors, to gain entrance to Oxford. He graduated with honors in 1972 and received a scholarship to Stanford, where he received his master's degree.

A three-time winner of the O. Henry Award, Wolff is widely respected for his short stories. His first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was published in 1981 and received rave reviews from such past masters of the genre as Annie Dillard and Joyce Carol Oates. Subsequent anthologies have only served to solidify his reputation as a preternaturally gifted storyteller. His 1984 novella The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and in 2003, he published his first novel, Old School, a shrewdly observed, heavily autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in an elite boys' boarding school.

Nearly as famous for his teaching as for his books, Wolff served on the faculty of Syracuse University for 17 years before accepting a position at Stanford in 1997 as a professor of English literature and creative writing. He is also a crackerjack editor and has shepherded several short story anthologies through to publication.

Good To Know

  • Leonardo DiCaprio beat out 400 hopefuls from Los Angeles, New York, Florida, and all places in between to star as Tobias Wolff in the film version of This Boy's Life.

  • Separated at a young age by their parent's divorce, Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff both grew up to become successful writers. Geoffrey's 1979 memoir of life with his con-artist father is called The Duke of Deception.

  • In an interview with The Boston Book Review, Tobias Wolfe discussed the phenomenon of selective memory this way: " Memory is something that you do; it is not something that you have. You remember, and when you remember you bring in all the resources of invention, calculation, self-interest and self-protection. Imagination is part of it too."
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      1. Also Known As:
        Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff (full name)
      2. Hometown:
        Northern California
      1. Date of Birth:
        June 19, 1945
      2. Place of Birth:
        Birmingham, Alabama
      1. Education:
        B.A., Oxford University, 1972; M.A., Stanford University, 1975

    Read an Excerpt


    Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the comer and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. "Oh, Toby," my mother said, "he's lost his brakes."

    The sound of the hom grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.

    By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff's edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.

    For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she bad no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn't help myself. When we pulled out of Grand junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.

    It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.

    We'd left Sarasota in the dead ofsummer, right after my tenth birthday, and beaded West under low flickering skies that turned black and exploded and cleared just long enough to leave the air gauzy with steam. We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick, strangled tongues. Idlers with rotten teeth surrounded the car to press peanuts on the pretty Yankee lady and her little boy, arguing among themselves about shortcuts. Women looked up from their flower beds as we drove past, or watched us from their porches, sometimes impassively, sometimes giving us a nod and a flutter of their fans.

    Every couple of hours the Nash Rambler boiled over. My mother kept digging into her little grubstake but no mechanic could fix it. All we could do was wait for it to cool, then drive on until it boiled over again. (My mother came to bate this machine so much that not long after we got to Utah she gave it away to a woman she met in a cafeteria.) At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. But none of this bothered me. I was caught up in my mother's freedom, her delight in her freedom, her dream of transformation.

    Everything was going to change when we got out West. My mother had been a girl in Beverly Hills, and the life we saw ahead of us was conjured from her memories of California in the days before the Crash. Her father, Daddy as she called him, had been a navy officer and a paper millionaire. They'd lived in a big house with a turret. Just before Daddy lost all his money and all his shanty-Irish relatives' money and got himself transferred overseas, my mother was one of four girls chosen to ride on the Beverly Hills float in the Tournament of Roses. The float's theme was "The End of the Rainbow" and it won that year's prize by acclamation. She met Jackie Coogan. She had her picture taken with Harold Lloyd and Marion Davies, whose movie The Sailor Man was filmed on Daddy's ship. When Daddy was at sea she and her mother lived a dream life in which, for days at a time, they played the part of sisters.

    And the cars my mother told me about as we waited for the Rambler to cool--I should have seen the cars! Daddy drove a Franklin touring car. She'd been courted by a boy who bad his own Chrysler convertible with a musical horn. And of course there was the Hernandez family, neighbors who'd moved up from Mexico after finding oil under their cactus ranch. The family was large. When they were expected to appear somewhere together they drove singly in a caravan of identical Pierce-Arrows.

    Something like that was supposed to happen to us. People in Utah were getting up poor in the morning and going to bed rich at night. You didn't need to be a mining engineer or a mineralogist. All you needed was a Geiger counter. We were on our way to the uranium fields, where my mother would get a job and keep her eyes open. Once she learned the ropes she'd start prospecting for a claim of her own.

    And when she found it she planned to do some serious compensating: for the years of hard work, first as a soda jerk and then as a novice secretary, that had gotten her no farther than flat broke and sometimes not that far. For the breakup of our family five years earlier. For the misery of her long affair with a violent man. She was going to make up for lost time, and I was going to help her.

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