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Jose Adams
Jose Adams

Duke Of Deception Memoir Of The Author's Father

Life, though, has a habit of outdoing even extremist fiction, and while Dwight is presented to us not so much warts and all as all warts, he nevertheless achieves a certain bizarre plausibility. And yet for all his oddness he is not even the most incredible of Mr. Wolff's relatives. That honor belongs to his actual father, as we know from ''The Duke of Deception,'' a cathartic memoir published 10 years ago by the author's older brother, Geoffrey. With his fake coat of arms and nonexistent degrees from Oxford and Yale, where he was - that is, wasn't - Skull and Bones, Duke Wolff was a Gatsby-like con artist of considerable charm who somehow managed, despite his failings, to gain not only the rage but also the love of his oldest son.

Duke of Deception Memoir of the Author's Father

Love, however, is not a word that leaps to mind when we consider the younger sibling's descriptions of his stepfather. Perhaps through sheer loathsomeness, Dwight is even more memorable than the numerous unsympathetic characters who appear in the author's novella ''The Barracks Thief,'' which won a PEN/Faulkner award, and his two books of disturbing and often brilliant stories, ''In the Garden of the North American Martyrs'' and ''Back in the World.'' The memoir as a whole, moreover, is literate and consistently entertaining - and richer, darker, and funnier than anything else Tobias Wolff has written.

''I think and remember in terms of stories,'' said Mr. Wolff, whose brother, Geoffrey, wrote a memoir about their father. ''I've told these stories so often - in a way I've been writing it for 20 years. I have an incredible clarity about those years. I can remember the names of boys I was in fourth grade with, but I can't remember the names of people I met last year.'' Mr. Wolff said he remains very close to his mother, though she lives in Florida. At a reading of portions of the book there last year, she was ''very impressed with its accuracy,'' he said. ''She can't even tell the smallest lie.''

Authors Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff might be an argument for investigating the genome for the presence of a writing gene. Following a tempestuous marriage and divorce, these two biologic brothers were raised separately. The mother Rosemary parented Tobias, the younger of the two brothers, while Geoffrey became the responsibility of his father, the Duke. Yet, despite markedly different life and career paths these men became friends as young adults and both are considered among the foremost living American authors. Each of the Wolff brothers has achieved considerable fame as a writer of fiction, fiction well worth reading. However, here I strongly recommend a consideration of each author's memoir/biography.

Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life starts when he is ten years old and stranded with his mother on top of the Continental Divide. They are embarked upon another of his mother's unsuccessful attempts to start over, this time seeking a fortune in the Utah uranium fields. Wolff's wonderfully compact prose describes a life in the less romantic sections of the Pacific Northwest, a hard-scrabble life spent one step ahead of creditors, dealing with his mother's less than perfect suitors, and a biologic father who didn't much care for him. This book contains a complex tale of a single mother and her bright "by accident" son elegantly and sometimes painfully rendered without a whiff of sentimentality. Yet, Wolff's mature prose accomplishes the memoirist's supreme challenge: he renders the details in the voice of the boy/teenager while reflecting upon the experience with the empathy and distance of an adult.

The best authors render fictional characters in a "thick" or "rounded" fashion. By this, it is meant the reader discovers a character on the page that is, as are most actual individuals, a montage of good and bad qualities, variable expertise, and multiple foibles. In the best memoirs the author must treat him or herself as a character, undergoing a self-interrogation equal in intensity to the inspection given the other characters. The "I" character must be shown in an equally "round" fashion or the reader will lose confidence in the author's will to tell a true story. Both these memoirs meet this exacting standard and are used as exemplars in graduate creative writing programs.

Geoffrey Wolff was born in Hollywood, California, as the first son to "Duke" Arthur Samuels and Rosemary (née Loftus) Wolff. He is the older brother of the novelist and memoirist Tobias Wolff. Their parents separated when Geoffrey was twelve, his brother living with their mother, and Geoffrey with their father; their parents eventually divorced. He has described the adventure of his upbringing with his father on the East Coast in an acclaimed memoir, The Duke of Deception (1979), which was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. (Tobias has treated with similar candor his own years with their mother in a memoir, This Boy's Life, published in 1989.)[2]

Geoffrey Wolff entangles the reader in a long, arduous explanation for why he is thankful his father died. As a reader, I felt the memoir was too long, too detailed with explanations, and I found myself focusing on mental and behavioral issues Duke and Geoffrey shared. Whether or not I focused on the wrong details, it helped to enlighten the link between father and son and the excuse for why he was so thankful over the death of his father.

Tobias Wolff is a writer and novelist best known for his memoir This Boy's Life, which tells the story of Wolff's adolescence in 1950s Washington State. Thirty years after its 1989 publication, The New York Times included This Boy's Life on its list of the 50 best memoirs of the previous 50 years, describing it as "powerful and impeccably written" and "a classic of the genre." Critics have compared it to Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. It was later made into a 1993 movie of the same name, much of it shot in Concrete, Washington, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the teenaged Wolff, Ellen Barkin as his beautiful, tragic, and spirited mother, and Robert DeNiro as his stepfather from hell. Wolff's writing career also includes such notable books as Old School and In Pharoah's Army. He served on the faculty at Syrcacuse University for 17 years before taking a professorship at Stanford in 1997.

When This Boy's Life was published in 1989 to great acclaim, Robert Thompson, now known to the world as Dwight, was still alive but ill. A granddaughter read the book to him on his deathbed, and he was reportedly very upset. Tobias Wolff's brother Geoffrey had written his own memoir about their father, The Duke of Deception, 10 years before. Their mother Rosemary, featured in both memoirs, joked that if she'd known her sons were to become writers she might have behaved differently. She had gone on to marry Frank Hutchins, an attorney she met in Washington, D.C. The couple later retired to Deltona, Florida, where she served as president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and an adult literacy volunteer and gave witty interviews about her sons.

Wolff's new book, The Final Club, is about Princeton students in the late 1950's. His memoir, The Duke of Deception, was about his father, who conned his way through his life and career. Wolff's brother is writer Tobias Wolff, who has his own childhood memoir, This Boy's Life.

Tobias Wolff's acclaimed new memoir tells the story of the author's early life with his poor, single mother. The book serves as a unique counterpoint to Wolff's brother Geoffrey's own memoir about life with their father. Tobias Wolff joins Fresh Air to discuss his memories of growing up and how he transformed himself into the person he is today.


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