This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir

Tobias Wolff (Adult Memoir)

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.

Ten-year-old Toby “Jack” Wolff dreams of escape and freedom. He dreams of transformation. Traveling with his mother from Florida to Utah in their Nash Rambler, their prospects finally seem bright and expansive. The future was theirs for the taking…that is if their luck changed which, in Toby’s case, seems highly unlikely.

Tobias Wolff’s memoir is not one of those redemptive stories where everyone links arms and watches the sunset over the mountain or one where friends and family cheer as our young hero makes his way across the stage, grabs his diploma, and raises it high into the air signaling triumph. This is another kind of story where the reader bangs their head against the wall as our young protagonist continues to make one horribly bad decision after another. Where the hero doesn’t learn from his mistakes and continually seems to disappoint everyone around him except himself. This horribly flawed and painfully real boy is the reason why I fell in love with this book.

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one’s watching. A lot of what Wolff includes in his memoir could certainly have been softened or even omitted in order to allow the reader to have just a small bit of sympathy for him and his circumstances. Instead, he goes full bore and gives us all the ugly, raw, and sordid details of his early years. He deprives us of feeling any sense of pity although we understand that he is but a product of a mother who continues to be drawn to poisonous men and friends that are a whisper away from juvenile detention.

Throughout this book, Wolff explains that he craved distinction, that he only wanted what he couldn’t have, and that he was merely living off of an idea that he had of himself. Although we understand and accept this, we still ache when he tries to please a parent who neither deserves or earns it and hold our breath and silently curse as we realize yet again that another opportunity has been squandered away. Through all of his pain and suffering, Wolff reminds us that life is messy. It’s gnarled. It’s complicated. Life sometimes is just like that…especially this boy’s life.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

River Season by Jim Black

River Season

River Season

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

I think my mom’s patience with Charles, Gary, and myself stemmed from years of working on the pediatric floor at Methodist Hospital in Lubbock.  Maybe seeing so many sick and dying kids makes you look at your own in a different light.  I don’t know.  I do know she was not overly protective or strict back then.  I really think she just wanted us to enjoy the privilege of being kids, and I’ve always loved her for that.  It was easier back then, too, because times were different.  In our small town, we really did sleep with doors unlocked and windows open.  I know now those were the best of times.

Jim Black was thirteen in the summer of 1966.  Growing up in Archer City, Texas with his two best friends, Gary Beesinger and Charles Luig, life was great.  This summer, Jim had big plans: playing baseball, mowing lawns, and hanging out with his friends.  What he didn’t plan on was meeting Samuel “Sam” Joseph Washington, an older black man from the other side of town.  This man, who decided to take up residency at his favorite fishing spot, would not only grow to be a father figure to Jim, but would also become his friend and would show Jim the value of acceptance, generosity, and love.

In an interview with Brothers Judd (brothersjudd.com), Jim Black explained that There’s a River Down in Texas (which, after the addition of fifty pages, would later become River Season) is largely autobiographical with the remainder being pure fiction.  River Season gives us a warm, sometimes bittersweet, and nostalgic look at growing up in small-town America during a time when the only things on a boy’s mind were baseball, pretty girls, hanging out with friends, and getting into just enough mischief to make life interesting but not enough to get you arrested.  It was a simpler time when you knew who your friends were and, more importantly, who your enemies were.  Bullies were never anonymous and disagreements were settled swiftly resulting in either an inflated ego or a black eye.

I picked up River Season at a secondhand book store and after visiting Black’s website (jimblackbooks.com), this may be the only way for interested readers to obtain copies of his books.  Black explains that all contracts with his publisher have been cancelled and his books are no longer being produced.  I hope lightning strikes twice and I am able to find his sequel Tracks so that I can follow a fifteen-year-old Jim as he tackles high school, bullies, and a broken heart.

Although River Season does touch upon the racial tensions that occurred in the 1960s South, Black is not overly preachy on the subject.  He could have easily made this the focal point of his story, but he instead concentrates on the friendship between himself, Charles, and Gary, as well the touching bond he shared with Sam.  American author and businessman, Arthur H. Glasow, once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.”  Most of us would be fortunate to have just one friend like this.  Jim Black was blessed to have found three.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com

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