Archive for January 20th, 2020

Novelist Tobias Wolff’s school of hard knocks

Monday, January 20th, 2020
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Toby @Stanford

Tobias Wolff is one of Stanford’s treasures. The National Medal of Arts winner and professor emeritus of English is one of the nation’s leading writers. He didn’t have it easy, though, and recounts the story in This Boy’s Life. His mother was was the daughter of a naval officer who lost all of his money in the 1929 crash when she was 13. When Wolff was 4, she left her husband and drove with her two sons to Sarasota, Florida. After the divorce, his father married money and took his older brother Geoffrey, while Tobias stayed with his mom. “He sent my mother nothing, not even the small amount a judge had ordered,” he recalls.

He also tells the story in “Tobias Wolff’s Rough Ride,” in the Wall Street Journal here. (And thanks to Liddie Conquest for the heads-up!) Two excerpts:

My mother didn’t scare easily. She had been through a lot after we left my father in 1950. When she remarried in 1957, we lived in Newhalem, Wash., a hamlet of 200.

My stepfather was a drinker. He liked to stop at a tavern 15 miles downriver. He often returned to the car drunk and sped home with my mother, stepsister and me. He took pleasure in frightening us.

The road to Newhalem climbed high above the river on the right. Despite Mom’s pleas to slow down, he took hairpin turns too fast, nearly sending us tumbling down to the river.

My mother’s face would be frozen in terror, but she never said another word. She probably just added the near-death experiences to a long list of reasons to leave him, which eventually she did.

Mother, son, and dog, Sheppy, in Florida, 1950. (Wolff family)

I was born in Birmingham, Ala., where my father, Arthur, was a project manager at Bechtel Corp. He converted civilian planes into military aircraft. My family moved to Atlanta and then to Old Lyme, Conn. My father didn’t belittle my mother, Rosemary, or lay a hand on her. His abuse was extreme irresponsibility and infidelity.

***

In Sarasota, my mother met a man, and we lived with him for a couple of years. He was a good-looking guy, a former cop, who had been living in a trailer off his disability checks. He was physically abusive.

When she left him, my mother drove us to Utah. She was convinced we could become rich by prospecting for uranium deposits there. I was going into the fifth grade.

I loved the drive, staying in motels and crossing the Rockies. I imagined myself a character in a Western. In Salt Lake City, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a Victorian house.

Then the man we’d left in Sarasota tracked us down. We took a bus to Seattle in the middle of the night. We lived in a boardinghouse in West Seattle for a year.

Read the rest here.