by Jerry Waxler
“I don’t know why I did it,” Tobias Wolff says to his guardian, in his memoir “This Boy’s Life.” The previous night, Wolff had stolen gasoline from a neighbor’s farm truck. Caught in the act, Wolff admitted it, and to atone for his sin, he was sent back to the farmer to apologize. But Wolff couldn’t force himself to utter the magic words, “I’m sorry.” Despite his guardian’s desperate plea, Wolff doesn’t apologize and doesn’t offer any reasons. His act of defiance just sits there, confusing to him, disappointing to his guardian, and not very clear to the reader, either.
It was a powerful choice for Wolff to not explain himself to the reader. Another writer might have invented some explanation, or speculated from today’s wisdom, looking back on his young self. But in letting his act stand unexplained, Wolff lets us see the way his mind worked at the time, a troubled teenager, not sure why he’s doing the things he does. His strange, impulsive acts remind me of times in my own teenage years when I acted without knowing why I was doing what I was doing, occasionally doing destructive, or even cruel things. It’s difficult to remember those times. It’s certainly uncomfortable. But reading Wolff’s memoir helps me once again stand in that fog and look around. I hate it, and yet it was part of my life.
I read an excellent book about how to raise a teenager called “Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind”. In offering insights about teenagers, the author provides a scientific background to what most of us already believe. Teenagers don’t always behave rationally. Wolff shows us through story.
The fact that teenage boys are willing to follow their impulses into dangerous and defiant territory says a lot about the human condition – it helps explain wars. For example read Tracy Kidder’s “My Detachment,” a tale of coming of age while he was an officer in Vietnam. This book also shows how the fog of youth fits in so well with war. Kidder just didn’t seem to be able to connect with life, letting readers of his memoir share his state of mind at the time he experienced it. In the documentary movie, “The Fog of War,” Robert S. McNamara talks about the bad choices that were made in Vietnam. It’s tragic to realize that in times when life and death hangs in the balance, so many decisions are made in this fog. From the coming of age memoirs of Kidder and Wolff, I wonder how much of that fog comes straight from the teenage mind.
As a reader, I did not find Kidder’s or Wolff’s lack of clarity to be a very pleasant experience. It’s more fun to read about clarity. Take the scene in Jeannette Walls’ “Glass Castle” when her father was whipping her – she was shocked, but as the beating continued, a light bulb went off. She realized that she did not need to accept this forever, and she started plotting her escape. I loved Jeanette Walls’ lightbulb. Her insight gave me a sense of hope, very different from Wolff who was swept along by his own cunning tactics for survival, but didn’t quite see where he was going, and even when he tried to escape, he failed and slipped back into the fog. Wolff’s memoir forced me to struggle with hopelessness. So what kept me turning the pages? Why didn’t I give up on him and throw down the book in disgust?
One of the attractions about coming of age stories is that the reader hopes that the protagonist is going to turn a corner, to open his eyes, and see beyond the fog. The suspense for me as a reader is my desire that they will grow out of their adolescent craziness, and escape into a saner world in which clear choices lead to positive outcomes.