I first became aware of this memoir several years ago after seeing Titanic and Romeo and Juliet inspired me to search Leonardo DiCaprio's back catalog (I was thirteen when Titanic came out, I was in the target demographic). Over seventeen years later, I still haven't seen the film, but I've finally read the book that I've had for a few years. I actually read Son of a Gun only a few weeks before this one, and though these two memoirs' events are separated by almost half a century, it was easy to see parallels between the lives of the authors and their mothers. Tobias Wolff and his mother move west in search of opportunities, and his mother ends up in a series of relationships with abusive men while his actual father is disconnected from his son's life. That could just as well describe Justin St. Germain's life. However, the end results are very different for the two women and their sons though one could easily see how if certain things had been just a bit different, Wolff's mother could have faced a similar tragedy as Germain's.
Though Wolff generally comes off as a sweet kid, it is also clear that he easily falls in with the wrong crowds and makes bad decisions, something that is repeated in Utah, Seattle (where his mother temporarily lives as a single mother) and the small rural town in Washington where Wolff and his mother settle after her marriage to Dwight. Toby, or Jack as he calls himself, drinks, lies and cheats, and he and his stepfather quickly become bitter opponents. Despite all of Toby's failings, it is hard not to root for him to not only get away from his stepfather but also turn his life around and stop screwing up. Toby does make it rather clear early on that part of the reason his mother remarries may very well have been to introduce some discipline in his life.
Wolff also clearly feels abandoned. His older brother stayed with their father after the divorce, and there is a big split in the family, probably one of the reasons he rejects his given name for Jack. In fact, he doesn't speak to his older brother for almost six years until Toby finally reaches for help. While this is not the first time he has reached out to someone about his situation, Wolff also makes clear that he had a gift for dramatization and exaggeration, writing very embellished versions of the truth to stir pity.
I enjoyed this one more than Son of a Gun, though I think they compliment each other well. However, this focuses much more on the stepfather-stepson relationship while Son of a Gun was about the mother-son and mother-stepfather relationships. This one also ends on a note of hope because as much as Toby keeps screwing up his chances, in the end, the reader knows that he has gone on to become a successful author. As a result, I think Wolff is willing to also show his bad sides, and even let the reader occasionally see where Dwight has a point, though more often than not, Dwight is a petty, small minded man. Though I haven't seen the film, I was naturally DiCaprio as Toby/Jack and DeNiro as Dwight. I am a bit more curious to see the film now, especially since was before DeNiro started doing Meet the Parents kind of movies all the time.