This semester, before the coronavirus caused us to disband from the shared physical space of our classroom, I had the high-school freshmen read the story “Smorgasbord” by Tobias Wolff, from his collection The Night In Question (1996). Even though this was actually the first short story I was assigned to read in my very first fiction workshop when I was in college, I’d never read it with a PVA class before, probably because we usually end up reading Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” and I don’t like to double up on a writer, especially a white male. And Wolff is pretty much the quintessential white male literary writer.
Two pairs of freshmen were assigned to summarize “Smorgasbord.” Here’s the first summary:
The unnamed main character is impatiently waiting to consummate his relationship with his girlfriend. He’s invited by Crosley, another boy at the boarding school, who was invited by Garcia, a dictator’s son, to have lunch with him and his stepmother, Linda. Once in the limousine, the main character notices Linda’s beauty and is immediately attracted to her. Garcia then has a fight with Linda about, according to Crosley, money. Garcia stubbornly stays in the limo while the others eat dinner in a Smorgasbord chosen by Crosley. In the restaurant, the main character is distracted by a waitress’ attributes. Crosley and the main character eat a bunch of food while discussing the main character’s impending shift in the relationship with his girlfriend. Garcia, out of frustration, calls them to the limo and they drive away. When they arrive back at the school Linda gives both of the boys 100 dollars after Garcia refuses the money. They converse about what to do with the money and decide to spend it on prostitutes. This causes a breakup in the main relationship 5 months later because “he no longer loves her.”
The chronic tension in the story is that the main character is horny.
The acute tension is the main character meeting Linda and noticing how mighty fine she is.
And the second pair’s summary:
In “Smorgasbord,” we are presented with a private preparatory school student who is feeling insecure and troubled over his financial status. He feels excluded and different because he is not able to go home like the other students. This adds to his insecurity. He travels to dinner and thinks about his misfortune and differences. After eating, he goes back to his room and thinks about this. Soon, his friend Crosley invites him to go out with his other friend Garcia. He has been thinking of ending things with his girlfriend. Crosley and the narrator leave to go in the limo along with Garcia and his stepmom, Linda. They travel to a restaurant and begin dining.The main character and Crosley return to their table with large plates of food. They start talking with Garcia’s stepmother Linda, and she asks them if they have girlfriends. Crosley says no, but the main character replies yes, and then goes on to talk about his girlfriend Jane with the two of them. He can see that Linda’s “eyes are laughing”, which gives him a flashback to his English class. Garcia then appears at the door, very angry. Linda says that it’s time to go, and the three of them follow Garcia into the car. As they say goodbye, Linda offers all three of them hundred dollar bills. Garcia rudely refuses, but the two other boys accept. The main character returns to his room and tries to go to sleep. Flashforward to a month after he returns and sees his girlfriend, and they break up, because they realize they don’t love each other. Back to present and Crosley returns to the room to see if he has any Tums. Crosley then asks to stay, and the main character hesitantly agrees. They talk, and Crosley tells him the story of him stealing then getting caught returning his old roommate’s coat. The story ends with the two of them wondering how they should go about buying a prostitute.
If you mix these two descriptions together then you get a better idea of what’s going on here and how the chronic tension is working. There’s really two threads of it, the one the first description focuses on–the girlfriend/sex–and the one the second description mentions at the beginning–his insecurity at the boarding school because of his (lack of) financial status. The acute tension is going to this “smorgasbord” with this attractive woman who is supposedly the wife of a dictator. Neither of the descriptions here quite clearly identifies what the climax of this arc actually is; it’s buried in the first one in the “They converse about what to do with the money” part, and the second one gets a bit closer with “They talk, and Crosley tells him the story of him stealing then getting caught returning his old roommate’s coat.”
Crosely is an initially obnoxious character who the main character tells us most of their classmates keep their distance from because he’s rumored to be a thief. The narrator has also mentioned how he’s hungry a lot because of not having a lot of money, and during the smorgasbord acute tension, he and Crosley both eat like there’s no tomorrow. As they’re doing this, as the second summary mentions, the beautiful woman (whom their appetites for food are objective correlatives for their lust for) interrogates them about women, and when the narrator waxes poetic about his girlfriend, she makes him feel foolish. Her gift of money to them, which they both accept, is a concrete gesture that symbolically shows a likeness between them (contrasted with Garcia, who refuses it), a likeness elucidated by the conversation they have afterwards: they’re both poor. Crosley confesses in this conversation that the rumors are true and he really did steal from his roommate, a coat that drove him crazy with desire. The real climax of the narrative arc is in this moment:
“Man, did I want that coat. It was ridiculous how much I wanted it. You know?” He looked right at me. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
This is a moment where the main character overtly acknowledges that the two of them are the same in this fundamental way. The smorgasbord acute tension (s)experience has enabled them to recognize this sameness and bond over it. A change has taken place because the narrator was lonely at the beginning and we can now see that he will not be as lonely anymore: in this place full of rich entitled brats like Garcia, there is at least one other person with whom he has something in common.
The resolution or denouement after this climactic moment bears this change out by showing us that the main character was being truthful in response to Crosley’s critical question and by showing them continue their bond in a conversation that explicitly links money to sex. Near the conclusion we see the narrator mentally justifying the idea of buying a prostitute with the idea that it would be specifically for his girlfriend Jane’s sake. By this point we’ve already been told that they’ll break up a month or so later because he doesn’t love her, and we know, or should know, that his justifications for the prostitute are ultimately self-serving bullsh*t. It’s left ambiguous whether he and Crosley actually go through with getting prostitutes or not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the fantasy of getting one facilitates a bond between him and Crosley that we presume will outlast this night (probably it will outlast his relationship with Jane).
So narratively, it works. A specific change happens because of the events specifically described. Perfect story, right? Structurally, I guess you could say that. This story is a pretty good example of using both food and clothes as objective correlatives, as per my previous post–the concrete object of the stolen coat stands in for the longing created by class discrepancy in this elite prep school and facilitates the recognition of an abstract idea of shared likeness. But someone very specific is sacrificed to achieve this structure: the women. The story’s female characters are essentially rendered objects to serve this structure and plot rather than developed as characters in their own right.
First, there’s Garcia’s stepmother, the beautiful Linda, an object of lust whose reaction to his discussion of his girlfriend–another female object–serves to reveal his own delusions to himself, to reveal that he’s really just using her for sex (or the promise of sex at this point), aka using her like an object, and you would think that this realization might make the story self-aware in a way that’s pointing out misogyny rather than engaging in it. The narrator’s hollow justifications for getting a prostitute–the story’s third female object–would also seem to be a gesture of recognizing misogyny, and yet the uplifting, almost giddy tone taken in the story’s final line describing the bond this facilitates with Crosley pretty much undoes all of this:
And so we sat up and took counsel, leaning toward each other from the beds, holding our swollen bellies, whispering back and forth about how this thing might be done, and where, and when.
I didn’t really realize until I looked at this line again how homoerotic it is…which is in service of the point I was going to make anyway: by focusing the acute-tension reversal, the story’s critical change, around the narrator’s relationship with Crosley, this bromance is elevated as the most important relationship in the story, all the female characters narratively used only to develop it in the exact same way the narrator uses his girlfriend and would use both Linda and a prostitute. This relationship hierarchy sends a message: if women are only narratively present to further male relationships, men are implicitly elevated as more important.
When the freshmen discussed the story, some were assigned to be “connectors”–to connect some aspect of the story to other literary texts they’ve read. One pair’s response got at this idea of the female being used as a plot device to facilitate male bonding:
Both “Gilgamesh” and “Smorgasbord” use specific character archetypes to carry the story along and bring two other characters together. In the case of these two stories, the archetype is of the alluring woman. In “Smorgasbord”, the character is Garcia’s stepmother, who is both physically and psychologically alluring. Linda attracts the main character with her scent and good looks. She also attracts him with her mysterious mannerisms (smoking cigarettes and wearing the cape) and gregarious personality. After the dinner, Linda gives both Crosley and the main character a hundred dollars, effectively cementing their friendship. In “Gilgamesh”, the alluring female character is Shamhat, the prostitute at the start of the epic who makes Enkidu more civilized. While she doesn’t directly bring Gilgamesh and Enkidu together, her relationship with Enkidu changed him and thus the plot of the story, bringing together Gilgamesh and Enkidu both physically and emotionally.
That’s not to say you could never have a story about a bromance without it being inherently misogynistic. It’s really ultimately about how the story treats the female characters; even if it is a bromance story and the female characters ultimately exist to emphasize that aspect, you have to hide the fact that this is their primary narrative function and make them feel more human than “Smorgasbord” does.
II. This Boy’s Life
Recently rereading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which begins right after Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of his third or fourth prep school, a passage early on instantly reminded me of “Smorgasbord”:
The week before that, somebody’d stolen my camel’s-hair coat right out of my room, with my fur-lined gloves right in the pocket and all. Pencey was full of crooks.
Salinger of course is another quintessential white male literary writer (one who I also noted in my previous post uses food and clothes as effective objective correlatives), and when his own misogyny and behavior with women was called into question, he was vociferously defended by the establishment, that inherently sexist/misogynist institution unconsciously reflected in “Smorgasbord.”
Having recently finished Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life, I gained a little more insight into the cultural and familial forces that molded Wolff in his formative years, and how these were manifesting themselves in “Smorgasbord.” The book is quite captivating, divided into chapters with near short-story arcs but that are each a critical piece in the longer arc of the book as a whole. But as when I re-read “Smorgasbord,” I had feelings that this technical prowess was hiding something darker. Wolff makes you read between the lines with what might be deemed (by the patriarchy) textbook examples of show-don’t-tell, but at times it feels like what he’s showing is revealing more than he consciously intended.
The book begins with Wolff at ten/eleven years old driving across the country with his mother, who’s fleeing a not-so-great relationship. During one of their periodic stops to let their old car cool down, a semi-truck screams past them, and his mother notes it must have lost its brakes. After they get back in the car, there’s a hubbub up ahead where the semi drove over a cliff, and Wolff gazes down at the small and distant wreckage. The conclusion of this chapter-story is foreshadowing what is waiting for them at the end of this trip.
The bad boyfriend his mother was fleeing, Roy, shows back up once they’ve settled in Salt Lake City, and he ingratiates himself to young Wolff with a Winchester rifle. Wolff doesn’t mind when his mother flees Roy again, as long as he gets to take the rifle with him. (Guns are hugely important in the book, both thematically and as a structural device.) When they end up in Seattle, his mother falls into dating a man named Dwight, and it seems serious when Wolff goes to Dwight’s house some hours away in the boondocks and meets his kids for Thanksgiving. Dwight tries to entice Wolff with the promise of a turkey shoot where he can use his rifle, but this turns out to be untrue on two fronts—there’s no turkey, only paper targets, and only adults are allowed to participate. Dwight, we are learning along with Wolff, is largely full of sh*t, only interested in reinforcing his own ego.
Of course, Wolff might be biased in his account of Dwight, but there are ways he slyly reinforces an impression that he’s not exaggerating when it comes to Dwight—he’ll note times that he expects Dwight to fly off the handle, but Dwight surprises him and doesn’t. Another way Wolff undermines a one-sidedness in his account is by showing us that these unfavorably presented traits of Dwight’s are developing in himself. When Wolff returns to school after not getting to participate in the fake turkey shoot, he tells his delinquent friends he blew a turkey’s head off, and when they call him out for his obvious lie, he’s prompted to carve graffiti into one of the stalls in the school bathroom. This leads to his mother being called, an event that is then presented as a catalyst for her decision to send him to live with Dwight–because he’s in need of discipline she can’t provide–and thus also a catalyst for her eventual decision to marry him. (That this marriage is for her son’s sake but turns out to be destructive rather than beneficial for him–this marriage is that semi-truck gone over the cliff at the beginning–is the book’s great tragedy.) Dwight lied, Wolff lied in response to Dwight’s lie, and this is what ends up landing him with Dwight for the long haul…
To continue the gun thread, another significant moment in the development (or rather, deterioration) of Wolff’s relationship with Dwight is when Wolff comes home one day and there’s an ugly dog on the porch Dwight tells him is his, because “you paid for it.” Wolff doesn’t know what he means until he goes in his room and sees his prized Winchester rifle from Ray is gone. This foreshadows another theft that Dwight is already in the process of, having insisted on putting Wolff’s paper-route earnings in the bank for him and not even allowing Wolff to use the money to buy new shoes for himself when he needs them.
The ongoing conflict with Dwight creates a narrative goal for the main character of Wolff to escape, the avenue for which becomes the possibility of going away to a prep school, even though Wolff has terrible grades and is a general delinquent. Before he hears back from the schools he’s applied to—with fake transcripts and recommendation letters—he cuts off the tip of one of his fingers in woodshop class and has to have it surgically reattached. This injury becomes the conduit to finally galvanize his mother to leave Dwight for good, when Dwight, during one of his fairly standard nagging/abusive routines, aggravates the injury:
“Don’t talk to me like that, mister,” he said, and jabbed his fingers against my chest.
He didn’t push all that hard, but he caught me off balance. I stumbled backward, tripping on my own feet, and as I went down I threw my hands out behind me to break the fall. All this seemed to happen very slowly, until the moment I landed on my finger.
This is one of those moments where Wolff reinforces that his account of Dwight is fair and not exaggerated out of bitterness: he acknowledges that Dwight “didn’t push all that hard,” and that even if Dwight had intentionally injured him on other occasions, what happened to his finger here was more or less an accident.
Let’s compare this to the movie version. The setup for this finger-re-injury incident is traded out for an earlier one in the book, Dwight yelling at Wolff for throwing away an empty mustard jar that to his standards hasn’t been scraped out as much as it could be. By this point in the movie Wolff has already gotten his prep-school scholarship, though in the book he hasn’t yet when the finger incident happens that finally enables him to leave Dwight’s. (In the book the mustard incident–which Wolff then calls his estranged brother Geoffrey about, exaggerating what happened–is how he learns about the possibility of attending prep school in the first place.) The conflict is turned into the climax of the film when, instead of Dwight jabbing him lightly and him falling accidentally, the two explode into a full-blown fistfight, during which Dwight ends up biting Wolff’s injured finger extremely intentionally. Dwight then almost strangles him before his mother manages to stop him. (This would seem to be a stand-in for a separate incident in the book where Dwight almost strangles his mother that the movie omits.) Wolff, who already has his fraudulently procured prep-school exit secured, tells his mother she can leave with him, and she agrees, and they run out of the house giddy with joy, and Wolff’s voiceover (via Leonardo DiCaprio) says “It was that easy…”
Well, that’s Hollywood for you. This also reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye, where in the very first paragraph of the book Holden lets you know his feelings about Hollywood via his brother’s career:
Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.
Part of the reason Holden seems to hate them so much is because of the absurd fantasies about life they propagate, and the change this movie adaptation made to Wolff’s book seems emblematic to me about everything Holden hates about the movies. It was hardly that easy for Wolff and his mother to get out even after the finger re-injury incident makes up his mother’s mind that they will. Not even close to that easy. There’s basically a whole section of the book after that point the movie leaves out.
In both versions, we get that after years of Wolff’s working on his paper route, Dwight spent all the money–thousands of dollars–he claimed to be saving for him. The movie leaves it at that. But the book goes further in providing more of a resolution to this injustice, completing a more satisfying narrative arc by using that object(s) I’ve noted has become very relevant in other parts of the book: the gun. We’ve seen Wolff’s mother’s bad boyfriends seduce him with firepower and we’ve seen him fall for its false promises (parallel to the false promises made by the boyfriends). We saw Dwight outright steal two major things from our main character—his prized Winchester rifle and all of his hard-earned money. (Wolff notes that he stole money from his customers on occasion, but that was money that was not given over to Dwight and we saw him lose it to a con artist at a carnival in a sequence that also seems to reinforce a sort of cyclical nature to theft/conning/duplicity. Which means as a reader you’re basically put in the position of feeling Dwight’s theft from Wolff as an enraging injustice even though we know Wolff himself is a thief.)
So the way the book completes the arc of the Dwight conflict via guns is: after Wolff’s mother has finally managed to leave Dwight, Wolff hears from his stepsister that Dwight is planning to go to Seattle that weekend to win her back; while Dwight is gone on this errand, Wolff returns to the house and robs Dwight blind of all of his hunting equipment, including several rifles. He barely gets any money when he tries to pawn them, seeming to possibly symbolize the futility of this cycle of retribution, and yet there was something highly narratively satisfying in his robbing Dwight, of guns specifically, after the role(s) they played in the story. It also seems symbolic that the conclusion of their narrative arc is a disposal not just of one, but an entire arsenal. It seems symbolic of his leaving the machismo culture of this rural part of the country behind, as he is in fact about to do (for the different, if no less problematic culture of the elite prep school…).
The conflict with Dwight is one of the principle ones of the book in a way that you might argue gives him more airtime and character development than Wolff’s mother (and of course Robert De Niro, playing Dwight, gets billing over Ellen Barkin, playing Wolff’s mother, in the movie). But I’m not designating Wolff’s relationship with his abusive stepfather as a “bromance.” The book has another bromance, constituted by Wolff’s relationship with a boy named Arthur. I said that in “Smorgasbord” the main conflict is ultimately about the bromance, using the main character’s relationship to women to develop the bromance, but in This Boy’s Life, the bromance is the relationship that’s being narratively used to develop the narrative’s more primary conflict/relationship with the abusive stepfather Dwight.
The character of Arthur appears in both the book and the movie, and like the arc with Dwight, the movie truncates Arthur’s arc so that it’s not developed with the full satisfying symmetry achieved in the book. Arthur is first introduced when he and Wolff get into a fistfight after Wolff, despite recognizing Arthur as a kindred spirit, calls Arthur a “sissy” (changed to “homo” in the movie, I guess so modern viewers could understand the extremity of the implications). Wolff was encouraged to do so by some friends due to Arthur’s effeminate tendencies, but despite these, Arthur beats Wolff in the fight and makes him take the insult back.
Eventually Arthur and Wolff become friends, and at one point the book almost offhandedly mentions:
One night he kissed me, or I kissed him, or we kissed each other. It surprised us both. After that, whenever we felt particularly close we turned on each other.
In the movie, this is changed to Arthur kissing Wolff on the cheek when they’re playing piano together, after a long shot of Arthur gazing longingly at an oblivious Wolff, implying, not subtly, that Arthur is the gay one while Wolff has no potential leanings in that direction. Arthur’s feelings for Wolff become an implied motivation for something Arthur does that basically changes Wolff’s entire life, completing the narrative arc of the conflict with Dwight because it’s what enables Wolff to finally leave for prep school—Arthur, who works in the school office, is the one who procures the official forms Wolff needs to successfully forge his transcripts and recommendation letters.
In the movie, after Arthur gets Wolff the forms, we never see him again (though there is a note at the very end that he eventually did get out himself and move to Italy). But in the book, immediately after the scene where Arthur gets him the forms and he fills them out and sends them off, it describes them getting into one of the fights they’ve been getting into since the kiss (though the kiss is not invoked directly). A teacher who runs well-attended public boxing matches for a profit—which ought to give you some idea of the culture of this small town—forces Wolff and Arthur to participate as supposed punishment. During the match, Wolff ends up using some moves that Dwight taught him. Arthur’s last appearance in the book is during a description of an uppercut Wolff dealt him, though he notes that Arthur (again) won the fight. The passage with the fight then concludes:
I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I’d struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition, and pleasure, and something like love.
And we never hear of or from Arthur again… Much like the theft of the guns, the boxing match concludes the Arthur arc very symmetrically—Arthur was introduced with a fight and his arc ends with a fight. The viciousness toward his friend provoked by the ritual pretty much embodies what the culture of the town (embodied in Dwight) is doing to him and why he needs to leave. Narratively, structurally, it works, much like “Smorgasbord.”
But the way Arthur is dispensed with after he serves his purpose in the narrative is troubling to me in ways that feel similar to my discomfort with the way Jane is used in “Smorgasbord.” Used by the character, and, more problematically, used by the writer…
Arthur’s potential homosexuality is leaned on pretty heavily:
The weakest part of his act was the girlfriend, Beth Mathis. Though Beth wasn’t pretty she wasn’t exactly a gorgon either, as you would have thought from the way Arthur treated her. He gripped Beth’s hand as they walked from class to class, but he never talked to her or even looked at her. Instead he stared testily into the faces he passed as if looking for signs of skepticism or amusement. No one seemed to notice, but I did. It troubled me. It seemed so strange that I kept my mouth shut.
But aside from the fact that Wolff is cagey about who exactly kissed whom that one time, which is notable, he doesn’t much otherwise implicate himself in any homoerotic feelings, other than the fact that girls are mentioned only in the service of performances of machismo and never because he has serious feelings for them. This type of machismo is expressed in the passage above when he offhandedly says “Beth wasn’t pretty [but] she wasn’t exactly a gorgon either.” Such a description seems to accurately reflect how his conditioned adolescent mind evaluated women at the time, but I’m not seeing much in the retrospective relaying of it to evaluate this evaluation as problematic. Similarly, it seems that when Wolff baldly notes things like how he brazenly stares at his attractive older stepsister Norma, he’s implicitly shaming/rebuking these actions as gross, but other times it seems that not really enough work is done to interrogate these things.
It’s also troubling to me how Arthur’s final appearance is subsumed into “something like love for Dwight”; again, it feels like the passage is written in such a way that we’re supposed to recognize this form of love as sick because it’s constituted by these absurd violent performances of masculinity. But because of its placement, that sick love is linked to his potential love for Arthur, implicating that potential love as “sick” as well. That a sick love for Dwight might be formed in response to a need to eradicate this sick love for Arthur is complicated to say the least; the whole fight is essentially occurring because of their repressed feelings for each other, as the chain of events as presented seems to show: they kissed, they started fighting in response to their feelings of closeness; a teacher caught them during one of these fights, forcing them to transfer it to a public boxing match. Wolff shows the events happen this way without overly explicating them, in accordance with the creative writer’s show-don’t-tell mandate. But he doesn’t show quite enough for me when it comes to wrapping up the Arthur arc, especially in light of the implication that his love for Arthur is as sick as any he might feel for Dwight, and especially in comparison to how he articulates the complexity of his feelings from the retrospective vantage in regards to other male relationships of his, particularly with his friend Chuck, a pretty important character left out of the movie entirely, the friend he goes to live with after the finger re-injury leads to him finally leaving Dwight’s. And this is not the only way Chuck’s character–and Wolff’s feelings for Chuck’s character and what happens to Chuck and the way he describes those feelings and what happens–enters the realm of misogyny.
Chuck ends up entrapped in a situation very different from but with certain parallels to Wolff’s when he impregnates an underage girl and is faced with the choice of marrying her or going to prison. While in certain ways Wolff seems to be showing us a situation that reflects the horrors of small-town life and culture, what exactly is figured as “horrific”about this scenario becomes problematic for me. It’s Chuck’s potential fate of having to marry the girl that’s the horror due to who this particular girl is:
Somebody had knocked her up. She’d kept her pregnancy secret for as long as she could, and she was so fat to begin with that this deception came within two months of bringing her to term. Her name was Tina Flood, but everyone just called her The Flood. She was fifteen years old.
Again, I’m sure this is all an accurate description of how this girl was perceived and treated at school. And Wolff makes some effort to call out his own attitudes toward “The Flood” at the time as problematic, but by the time he does, Chuck’s staunch refusal to marry her even under threat of prison has been figured as heroic. As the reader, Wolff puts you in the position of rooting for Chuck, which was his position. He and Chuck are both trying to escape, after all. And like Wolff, Chuck does end up escaping his potential fate of entrapment when one of his friends who also slept with Tina succumbs to the pressure to marry her:
I was shaking with relief and joy and cruel pleasure, for the truth was I didn’t like Huff and felt no pity for Tina. To me she was just The Flood and now I saw Huff trapped in its grip, paddling feebly on its broad heaving surface, pummeled and smothered, going under and bobbing up again somewhere else with his hairy arms churning and his pompadour agleam.
Here Wolff acknowledges that the pleasure he takes in Chuck’s escape at Tina’s expense is “cruel” in a way that again evokes an impression of honesty—here he is putting all his ugly feelings on display for the reader, and with that “cruel” label seems to be overtly acknowledging their ugliness. But is that enough to compensate for the episode being depicted such that even a feminist reader such as myself is seduced into taking up Wolff’s position of sympathy for Chuck escaping this situation that he got himself into by essentially using a girl like toilet paper? Is that enough to compensate for reducing the female to an object once more, designating her an “it” while the male counterpart that he claims to have the same level of feelings for as Tina gets to retain his human pronoun? The pure poetry dedicated to the description is a specific effort on the part of the retrospective writer, after all, one to capture the problematic mindset, but still.
Wolff again seems to be trying to inject some writerly awareness about how gross this all is from the retrospective position when he circles back chronologically to a moment with Chuck to end the book with. Chuck gets a much more articulated sendoff than Arthur:
He had escaped Tina Flood, he had escaped prison, and before long he would escape me. We weren’t friends any more, but we both had cause to rejoice and this helped us imagine we were friends.
And the final line:
It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.
This is a link back to some references revolving around Chuck’s father, a preacher. The “as if” strikes a note of discord, basically implying they have not actually been saved even if they’ve escaped their immediate bonds and believe this is enough to “save” them. Wolff may have escaped his immediate physical proximity to this culture, but he has not escaped its mark on him. Before returning to this point to end the book on, Wolff has summarized a fair amount of what happens after he leaves the place where he’s spent the bulk of the book, so we know for sure it’s true he hasn’t actually been “saved” in this moment, that just leaving is not enough. That he ends with faux-salvation instead of actual salvation again seems a way to potentially indict rather than excuse a lot of the terrible things he’s done, but it still doesn’t feel like quite enough acknowledgment to me. I’m seeing a pattern of (white) female and gay characters subverted to (white) straight male ones, which would seem to perpetuate the problems of the culture Wolff came from more than address them.
There was one other thing in This Boy’s Life that left a bad taste in my mouth in conjunction with the ending of Arthur’s arc and the depiction of homosexuality. Wolff summarizes the period after he leaves Dwight’s, mentioning that he spends the summer at his father’s, but with his father largely absent, he ends up mostly in the company of his father’s friend:
For two weeks I drove back and forth along the beach and ate TV dinners and went to movies with an acquaintance of my father’s who had offered to keep an eye on me. One morning I woke up to find this man embracing me and making declarations of love. I got him out of the apartment and called my father, who told me to “shoot the bastard” if he came back. For this purpose he directed me to a .223 Air Force Survival Rifle he had hidden in the closet. He waited on the telephone while I fetched the rifle from its hiding place, then instructed me in its assembly.
That night the man leaned against the apartment door and sobbed while I stood in the darkness on the other side, silently hugging the rifle, sweating and shaking as in a fever.
This is the last we hear of this. Of course it’s an interesting call-back to the gun motif, linking it to the homoerotic. I don’t even know what to do with this, though. The quick summaries of this period, his time at the prep school, and his tour in Vietnam (the latter two subjects of other books of his) feel too quick, and we get so little about what happens during this time that it’s interesting this is one of the few details he does include. It seems a microcosm of all the book’s elements, really, the latent homoeroticism in male relationships tied up with guns. But the gay element here is likened to the threatening, to something he’s forced to take up arms against. It’s depicted as predatory. And once again I was reminded of The Catcher in the Rye, specifically when Holden retreats to the abode of a former teacher–“about the best teacher I ever had,” who’s “a pretty young guy,”–who’s revealed to be a “pervert” who tries to take advantage of Holden.
Perhaps my reading these two books around the same time reinforced my queer reading of them, but I’ve become convinced via both Wolff’s descriptions of what happened with Arthur and his narrative handling of him that Wolff is definitely more gay than he’s letting on, and that Holden Caulfield is gay/bi. (I won’t go into the textual evidence for the latter at this point, but at least one other person has picked up on it.)
At any rate, if we’re going to continue to hold up these old white males’ work as examples of technical literary prowess, I think it’s important to interrogate the attitudes that prowess is encoding.