At just ten years old, Tobias Wolff is reluctantly on the road. His restless, spirited mother is desperate to build a life for them both, but Tobias is struggling with this ever-changing routine. When they finally reach Utah, he decides to change his name to Jack, after his hero Jack London, because he longs for adventure and to start afresh. This Boy's Life traces Jack's experiences growing up against the background of a violent and wildly optimistic America.
Wolff shifts to nonfiction in this jewel-like memoir of childhood in the 1950's. Despite the all-American props - Boy Scouts, cars, basketball - this boyhood unfolds light-years away from suburban heaven, offering instead a divorced mother and her angry son trying with little success to cut a piece of the American pie. Wolff sets the tone right off the bat, as he and his mom, driving to Utah to strike it rich as uranium prospectors, watch a truck careen towards a fatal crash. From then on, one dark episode follows another. Wolff recalls his early years in Florida, where he shoots arrows at friends and lies in the confessional. When he and his doting mom finally settle in Seattle, he becomes a petty delinquent, shoplifting, drinking, writing bad checks, breaking windows, scrawling obscenities on walls. Some of this seems reaction against his wealthy, estranged father, now dead, about whom he feels "grief and rage, mostly rage." Most adults treat him shabbily - a problem accentuated when his mother links up with a man named Dwight, a Lawrence Welk freak who smells of turpentine and brutalizes Wolff into husking chestnuts until his fingers bleed. He finds some relief in the Boy Scouts, which offers "the clean possibility of mastery"; in high school, he dreams of running away to Alaska, but instead he escapes to a prep school in Pennsylvania. An honest memoir that puts a new spin on familiar boyhood rituals: many authors have recalled watching Annette on the Mickey Mouse Club, but how many write about their buddies shouting crude sexual come-ons at the screen? Lucid, bitter, precise, terribly sad: the real-life equivalent of Wolff's acclaimed fiction. (Kirkus Reviews)