Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Art of the "Troubled Boyhood" Memoir

I finally read Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life! I don't know how I managed to get this far in my life without reading this seemingly-loved-by-everyone memoir. Years ago, I read his novella Old School and really liked it. One of my favorite college professors loved Tobias Wolff and would assign his work quite often. This Boy's Life was even made into a movie starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio, who I was completely obsessed with at the age of eleven. There are a million reasons I should have read this book years ago. But the most egregious thing about not reading Wolff's memoir earlier lies in it's genre. It's a classic example of what I like to call the "troubled boyhood" memoir, which has long been one of my favorite literary genres.

Two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books are also classic examples of the wayward-child memoir genre: Frank Conroy's beautiful Stop-Time and Sean Wilsey's messy, funny Oh the Glory of It All. I don't know why I am so drawn to memoirs about male writers who struggled with mean, luckless, extremely entertaining pasts. I think it's because the boys in these books live lives completely different from my own childhood. They lie and steal and cheat; I had a guilt complex the size of Antarctica. They hitchhike and have adventures; I could barely get myself to leave my own room. Their families are models of dysfunction; my family ate dinner together and went to Disney World. So because the books of Wolff and others of his ilk explore worlds so vastly different from my own, I just eat them up.

But there's also something weirdly maternal about my love for these books and these writers. When I read passages in which Wolff or Conroy or Wilsey suffer some kind of emotional or physical abuse from the adults in their lives, I get furious. These poor, poor children, I think. I don't even seem to realize that if I knew any of these writers as children, I'd probably want to shake some sense into them as well. But sometimes, the lack of care in their lives is really disturbing, and the sentimentalist in me just wants to wrap them all in a hug and whisper assurances. Luckily, all three of these writers are so good that they take away any pity you might feel by being self-deprecating or admitting to being jackasses. In the case of Conroy, particularly, you are too absorbed by the gorgeous writing to get too upset. I think this is why I really love the "troubled boyhood" memoir: because it reminds me of what good writing does time and again: makes us feel a huge range of emotion (pity, frustration, fear, love, etc.) in just the smallest turns of phrase.

So, obviously, I really enjoyed This Boy's Life. Wolff manages to take some painful topics - his parents' divorce, his estrangement from his brother and father, his cruel stepfather, his own delinquent behavior - and write about them in a light, funny, moving way. Then, every once in awhile, there's so much honesty in Wolff's voice that it's really quite breathtaking. Take, for example, this passage of the book, in which Wolff talks about how he too easily forgave the father who basically abandoned him, making him a hero he wasn't around enough to ever blame or see fault in:

This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born. He came three weeks early, when I was away from home. The first time I saw him, in the hospital nursery, a nurse was trying to take a blood sample from him. She couldn't find a vein. She kept jabbing him, and every time the needle went in I felt it myself. My impatience made her so clumsy that another nurse had to take over. When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew that I was more alive than I had been before. But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn't understand what it was until it came upon me again that night, so sharply I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, and for days I shook with it when I wasn't shaking with joy with my son, and for the new life I had been given.

This passage comes int he middle of section in which a middle-school-aged Wolff is dealing with his possessive asshat of a stepfather. It comes almost from nowhere, letting us know that Wolff manages to make it out as a good-hearted man who still cannot escape his past abandonment. The single paragraph really adds to the poignancy of the entire book. I love when writers do this kind of stuff. And this is the kind of stuff that happens time and again in the greatest of the troubled boyhood memoirs. I think I will be reading them forever.

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