This is a memoir of the author's troubled teen years. It begins in 1955 with Toby and his divorced mother driving west from Florida, running from her abusive boyfriend and with the cockeyed scheme of striking it rich in the Utah uranium fields. When that doesn't work out, they go on to the West Coast, where the mother moves around in search of work and fends off that boyfriend and a number of other undesirable suitors. Tragically, she finally marries Dwight, a controlling and abusive man who makes both her and Toby miserable.

Much of the memoir deals with Toby's desperate and often destructive attempts to survive under Dwight's reign of terror. Toby neglects his schoolwork and runs with some bad characters, and toward the end of the book he carries off an astonishing series of falsifications that leads to his being accepted for admission at a prestigious prep school. He doesn't last, and he winds up enlisting in the army, where he strangely feels "a sense of relief and homecoming."


This is a rich and beautifully written book about growing up under punishing domestic circumstances. Toby is trapped in his life, certainly by Dwight, but also by his mother's family history. Both her father and her first husband had been tyrants who used punishment, lying, and humiliation to assert their control over her. Wolff the author comments that his mother's treatment by her father left her with "a strange docility, almost a paralysis, with men of the tyrant breed" (60).

Those early patterns are surely what allowed the mother's otherwise inexplicable marriage to Dwight. They may also have been responsible for a deceptiveness and manipulativeness that we see in Toby from the very beginning. The book begins with Toby and his mother at the Continental Divide being passed by a truck hurtling down the mountain road without brakes, clearly out of control. The truck eventually goes off the edge, and Wolff tells us that he used his mother's emotional vulnerability later that day to acquire some souvenirs that she really couldn't afford.

That scene opens up the complex subject of control that is so important throughout. Toby's improbable scheme for escape at the end is agonizing because it is very clearly wholesale and criminal misrepresentation, but we sympathize to the degree that we understand that every one of Toby's falsifications is faithful to the image of a true and better self that he has kept intact through the years that seem to have conspired to erase it.


Originally published in 1989 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. There is a good film version (1993) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro.


Harper & Row

Place Published

New York



Page Count