Brutal beginnings

From The Guardian:

TobyWriters of fiction like to say they ply their trade by telling lies, but Tobias Wolff really was a liar. He would not be where he is today if he hadn't been. Terrorised by a violent stepfather, dependent for refuge on his floundering mother, he made up stories in order to survive. When it was necessary to fortify his inventions with facts, Wolff made an easy transition to forgery. As an adolescent in 1960, for example, he glimpsed an escape from domestic hell through a much sought-after scholarship to a Pennsylvania prep school. The authorities requested recommendations, naturally, so 15-year-old “Jack” (he had adopted the name in homage to Jack London) posted off a sheaf of testimonies to his academic, social and sporting prowess – all written by him – and was duly accepted for a coveted scholarship place at the Hill School, whose illustrious old boys included Edmund Wilson and General Patton. Wolff describes his time there as an “idyll”, which lasted just over two years before he was “flushed out” and expelled. After a short stretch at sea, where he suspected one of his crew mates of plotting to kill him, he joined the army and was trained as a member of the Special Forces, otherwise known as the Green Berets. In the spring of 1967, he was shipped out to Vietnam. Wolff has written about these experiences with scrupulous honesty – more self-laceration than bravado – in two wonderful memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, and in a well-crafted short novel, Old School. “It wasn't that long a time in my life”, he says, seated in his office at Stanford University, where he has taught in the English department since 1997. “I had pretty much stopped being a bullshitter by the time I joined the army. I hope I don't still con people, though I never quite believe that I got anything good legitimately. Maybe some of the imaginative effort that it took to tell lies goes into my work.”

…Wolff's brother Geoffrey is also the author of fiction and memoirs. Their father, Duke, was a genteel con man, who might have been found working as an executive in the aviation industry one year and serving time in prison on fraud-related charges the next (he had several aliases, including Saunders Ansell-Wolff III). Following their parents' separation when the boys were young, Tobias went with his mother – rolling from state to state on get-rich-quick schemes or on the run from some man she was “afraid of” – while Geoffrey moved east with their father. For seven years, Geoffrey recalls, “I didn't know where he lived, or with whom, in addition to our mother.” In fact, Tobias was living under the iron-fisted rule of his stepfather Dwight – Geoffrey calls him a “troglodyte” – whom their mother had married in 1957. The catalogue of put-downs and punishments inflicted on the young Tobias in This Boy's Life would turn the worst Dickensian tyrant queasy. “This Boy's Life began as a collection of memories I was putting down so that my children would know how I grew up,” Wolff says, “because they were raised in an academic atmosphere, and my mother by that time was a very proper old lady.” Readers of the memoir will recall how Dwight tracked Tobias and his mother to the east coast – “from Washington State to Washington DC” – where Dwight tried to strangle her. “That was the last time I saw him,” Wolff says. “Standing in a snowstorm, with policemen holding his arms. My mother had bruises on her throat for weeks afterwards. They found a knife that he'd thrown into the hedge.” When he showed his mother the manuscript of This Boy's Life, Rosemary Wolff must have sighed. Geoffrey, who is seven years older than Tobias, had published his own memoir, The Duke of Deception, a decade before. Tobias recalls her being “a little apprehensive”, and joking: “If I'd known both my sons were going to be writers, I might have behaved differently.”

More here. (Note: I just read Old School and This Boy's Life and am ravished by Wolff. Get them and read them if you have not already done so.)