Last night Mike and I went to hear Tobias Wolff read. A particularly beloved writer in this “writer’s town,” he did not disappoint, and we found ourselves completely lost in the power of his stories, gentle humor, and genuinely brilliant literary mind. He read old work and new, and concluded with a special request from Maggie Conroy, one of Mike’s favorite short stories, “Bullet in the Brain.”
Afterwards we went up to meet him. Mike shook his hand, I stood there dumbfounded; it’s possible that we both had tears in our eyes. I had a brief and desperate moment of wanting to tell him what This Boy’s Life had meant to me, how I had stumbled upon it blindly in a used book bin when far from home. I would have told Wolff how I remember reading it all day while waiting for a train, and how even the first lines touched a nerve.
This Boy’s Life opens with a scene I can easily place in my own life:
“Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and the a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
My own mother, a Pennsylvania native, would drive us East every summer. We’d pass trucks on the interstate only to be nearly killed by them on the mountain roads. I never got used to it; the suddenness with which they appeared behind our old Buick, the fear that they would just roll right over us. Moreover, I remember what I deemed a reckless disregard for life (theirs, and I remember thinking at the time, mine). When we did occasionally pass by the smoking crashes, I would dwell on them for days, thinking about the value of each life. Wolff’s words perfectly capture these feeling for me, just one example of the way (as he put it last night) great literature can “humanize” us.