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This Boy's Life

Tobias Wolff

Part Six, Chapters 1–2

Part Five, Chapters 4–6

Part Six, Chapters 3–5; Part Seven

Summary

Chapter 1

Chuck gets drunk nearly every night and is often violent with himself. After dark, Chuck and Jack routinely sneak out and go to Veronica's apartment, where they drink and play poker. Chuck's father, Mr. Bolger, is a church minister, and although Mr. Bolger does not expect Jack to believe as fervently as he does, Mr. Bolger does require that Jack join his the rest of the Bolger family in attending church. Jack is overcome by the liveliness of the gospel music and wants to wander over to the "Amen Corner," where parish members holler and clap in a show of faith. Jack refrains from doing so, however, afraid that Chuck will mock him and that, even worse, Mr. Bolger will think the gesture insincere and be disgusted. One night, after playing poker and drinking with Huff and Psycho, Chuck and Jack decide to drive to Bellingham. They do not have enough gas to make the trip, so they go to the Welch farm to steal some. The Welch boy, who is also named Jack, goes to school with the other boys, and is shy and "shabbily dressed." Chuck parks the car half a mile from the farm and siphons a few cans of gas from the Welch's tanks. In the end, the boys are too exhausted to drive to Bellingham, so Chuck and Jack go home to sleep. The next morning, the two boys are woken by Mr. Bolger. Mr. Welch has told Mr. Bolger that the boys have stolen his gasoline, and Mr. Bolger demands that both Chuck and Jack return to the Welch farm to return the gas and deliver a sincere apology. Mr. Bolger is patient but firm, and both boys are remorseful. When the boys go to the Welch farm, Chuck apologizes, but Jack panics and can't bring himself to speak or move. When they return from the farm, Mr. Bolger knocks on Chuck's door and asks how things went with the Welches. After a lingering silence, Jack confesses that he did not apologize to Mr. Welch. Mr. Bolger asks to speak to Jack alone, then tells Jack that he will have to call his mother to come and get him. Jack decides that he would rather join the army than return to Dwight in Chinook. The next day, Rosemary arrives at the Bolgers' house and begs them to keep Jack. They agree, but only on the condition that Jack work on the Welch farm after school. Jack would rather not do this, but concedes. Ultimately, however, Welch refuses this offer of help. Mr. Bolger arranges for Father Karl, a spunky and honest priest, to speak to Jack about his bad behavior. Father Karl does not deliver the trite sermon Jack is expecting. Instead, he asks Jack what Jack wants out of life and what he is doing. When Jack does not answer, Father Karl insists that there must be something that Jack wants, but that he is not going to get it by misbehaving.

Chapter 2

The sheriff arrives at the Bolgers' one night to inform Chuck that he is going to be charged with statutory rape, along with Huff and Psycho. The victim is an overweight, promiscuous fifteen-year-old girl named Tina Flood, nicknamed "The Flood" by her classmates. Tina is pregnant, but she is not sure who the father is. Tina's father and the sheriff give Chuck an ultimatum: If he marries Tina, he will not go to jail. Chuck adamantly refuses to marry Tina, claiming that he is saving himself for someone he loves. The sheriff arrests Chuck, but he returns home later that night and announces that he is not going to prison, as Huff has agreed to marry Tina instead. Amidst the frenzy of the rape case, Jack is awarded a scholarship to the Hill School. Ecstatic, Jack rereads his acceptance letter obsessively and studies the school's alumni bulletin. Mr. Howard is delighted by the good news and invites him to come to Seattle to be fitted for a new school wardrobe. Rosemary is happy for Jack and tells him that she has found a job at Aetna Insurance in Seattle, where she will start in another week. Meanwhile, Jack's father has arranged for him to take the bus down to LaJolla and spend the summer with him and Geoffrey. Although Jack and Rosemary discover that Dwight has spent the money Jack earned from his paper route and Rosemary earned as a waitress, rather than saving it in a bank, Jack notes that his mother looks more youthful and happy now that she knows she is leaving Dwight.

Analysis

Throughout the memoir, Jack tries earnestly to impress others and earn the acceptance and compassion he has not found at home. Naturally, Jack wants this same affection from Mr. Bolger, who treats Jack with a distant politeness, even though he seems to be repressing some feeling of fatherly tenderness towards him. The repression of this tenderness stems from the fact that Mr. Bolger knows that, like Chuck, Jack is troubled and volatile, and consequently fears hitting on a nerve that may trigger an emotional explosion. Although Jack desperately wants Mr. Bolger to like him, he does not want to seem eager or insincere, and thus refrains from joining the celebration in the "Amen Corner." Jack is also afraid that Chuck will mock him if he participates, but his real concern is how Mr. Bolger will react, and Jack fears that Mr. Bolger will interpret Jack's participation in church as an insincere attempt to win praise and love.

Jack is repulsed by his own actions when he cannot bring himself to apologize to Mr. Welch for stealing from him. As he looks into the sunken, sad face of Mr. Welch, Jack is paralyzed, and is profoundly ashamed of himself both for stealing and for not expressing his remorse. Importantly, Jack's shame and paralysis are induced by a feeling of familiarity—the Welch farm bears a striking resemblance to Jack's ramshackle home in Seattle. Jack understands the Welches' struggle and poverty because he recognizes that their misery is the same as his own.

While there is a part of Jack that identifies with the Welches, there is another part that condescends them, for they embody Jack's fears of failure. The Welches are Jack's "defeat-dream, his damnation-dream," working themselves weary in an attempt to get ahead without ever actually doing so. Jack sees the Welches as symbols of failure and defeat, so when the Welches refuse his help, Jack knows that this is the "ultimate punishment." When a family Jack has pitied and patronized deems him unworthy of serving them, Jack realizes that while his social status might be slightly higher than that of the Welches', he is much lowlier than them in terms of morality.

In talking to Jack, Father Karl hopes to provoke him to question himself and his motivations. Father Karl has faith that Jack is not a bad boy, even though he is on the wrong path, but he cannot reach Jack because Jack is simply "not available to be reached." Jack is in denial, having "left a dummy in [his] place to look sorry and make promises" instead of being honest with himself and admitting his own faults and weaknesses.

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