This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (1989)

I often play with myself on starting a book a game where I spot the exact point the author hooks me in and I know I’m going to read on.

Actually, if I’ve acquired the book myself the chances are I’ll be reading on anyways, but it’s fun to see where that point is as if I was coming to the book cold.

I often think of the author walking ahead of the reader on the start of the path that is their story. Suddenly they pause, turn, and hold out their hand to the reader. If they hook the reader with what they’re saying, the reader takes their hand and the author takes them on a journey.

That’s the point I love spotting.

That’s the point I often say out loud, “I’m in.”

This memoir’s got a good I’m in moment.

Let’s watch Wolff setting the scene from the first line.

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.

So. What we got here. They’re not made of money if they’ve a crap car that keeps boiling over. They’re in the middle of nowhere, which can be a bit disconcerting. They might be feeling a bit small and insignificant surrounded by ginormous mountains.

Wolff ratchets up all these elements in the next few lines. The following three sentences emphasise mother and son’s smallness and adds danger.

While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling on an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came round the corner and shot past us into the next curb, it’s trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”

On the road again, they come across the point where the truck went over the edge and fell hundreds of feet to the river below, where it lay on its back among boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind… My mother put her arm round my shoulder.

See Wolff still niggling with that sense of scale and danger? Big truck made small, exposed on its back, dead. This is serious shit. It’s a big wild world out there.

For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs.

I’m in.

Thanks for being here.

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Guy Nicholls

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