In Utah, Toby has plans for his own reinvention. He has “Western dreams” of freedom and self-sufficiency, and wants to remake himself into someone worthy of such dreams. He decides to rename himself Jack, after Jack London, believing that the name is both less effeminate and more representative of the kind of boy he wants to be. His mother doesn’t like the idea, but agrees to it on one condition—that Jack attend catechism classes, so that he can be baptized as Jonathan and take Jack as a nickname.
The idea of identity and performance will become one of the book’s most prominent themes as it continues to unfold. Here, the young Toby experiments for the first time with making a change to his identity and adopting a persona; he wants to become the archetype of a “Western” boy, and feels he must change parts of himself in order to successfully strike this new “pose.”
When Jack’s father hears of his plans to change his name, he calls from Connecticut to try and discourage his son, insisting that Tobias is an old Protestant family name. Later, the older Tobias will learn that his father’s family was actually Jewish and converted to hide their religious background. Jack’s mother, however, “pleased by [his] father’s show of irritation,” decides to take her son’s side, and supports him in “shedding” the name his father gave him as a kind of retaliation. Her ex-husband, despite having remarried a millionairess, sends the two of them no money.
The idea of constructed identities is further complicated in this passage as Tobias’s father calls him up to urge him not to change his identity—despite the fact that Wolff family’s entire identity seems to be predicated on a significant lie about who they really are and where they really come from.
Once a week after school his first fall in Utah, Jack attends catechism classes at the church under the instruction of a nun called Sister James. She is a faithful and passionate woman who tries to keep her students out of trouble by forming clubs for them. Jack joins the archery club, but he and his friends spend their afternoon trying to hit stray cats in the churchyard. Soon, the game evolves, and the boys surreptitiously try to hit one another. Looking back, the older Tobias doesn’t recall that trying to hurt each other was the object of the game, as they were almost immune to the thought they could actually wound one another.
The boys from Jack’s catechism class are playing a dangerous game, but paying no mind to the idea that they could actually hurt one another. What it means—and indeed what it takes—to hurt another person will be further explored as the narrative unfolds.
The young Jack is “subject to fits of feeling […] unworthy.” Though the feeling is unfounded, he worries that no one actually likes him, other than his mother. He especially worries that Sister James feels he is flawed and bad, and he begins skipping archery and some catechism classes to avoid her. He isn’t worried that his mother will find out—she has recently taken up again with Roy, the man she’d left Florida to get away from.
Though he is young, Jack already worries that he is insufficient, or somehow intrinsically bad. His feelings of unworthiness emerge again once his mother takes up with Roy, seeming to indicate that the young boy’s bad feelings about himself are directly tied to witnessing the cycles of pain and abuse his mother falls into again and again.
Jack, hungry for connection, spends his time running around with boys from school or talking to strangers on the streets downtown. His class begins a pen pal program, and he writes to his pen pal, Alice, with furious frequency. He sends her up to fifteen pages at a time, detailing a fantasy version of his life in which his father is the owner of a ranch. Jack describes racing “his” palomino horse, Smiley, through the deserts in pursuit of rattlesnakes and coyotes. Alice, however, responds irregularly; when she does, her letters are short and terse.
In order to escape the strange and increasingly dangerous circumstances of his life, the young Jack retreats into fantasy, spinning stories about a faux, grandiose life to stranger who couldn’t care less.
Each night, Jack goes home to his mother—and to Roy. Roy has followed them to Utah, and though he’s rented a room across town, he spends most nights and Jack and Rosemary’s apartment. Roy doesn’t work—he lives off a small inheritance and disability checks from the VA. He loves hunting and fishing, and often takes Jack with him on trips out to the desert, where they hunt and look for uranium ore. Roy teaches both Jack and Rosemary to shoot, and Jack mostly admires him, as his mother shields him from the fact that Roy often threatens and abuses her. Some nights, Rosemary can do nothing but sit and cry, and Jack comforts her, though he does not know the source of her pain.
This passage shows how abusers and violent people can often worm their way into their victims’—and their friends’ and families’—lives with little effort. Roy is “posing” as a stand-up guy, when in reality he is hurting both Rosemary and Jack; Jack, despite knowing that something is off, isn’t sure that Roy is what’s wrong, and actually begins looking up to the very man who is the source of so much of his and his mother’s pain and suffering.
Many afternoons, Roy, with Jack in the car, drives to the building where Rosemary works, waits for her to leave and start her walk home, then follows her in his car. Though Roy sometimes treats this like a game, Jack knows it isn’t—at the same time, he isn’t quite sure what it is. One afternoon near Christmas, Roy misses Rosemary coming out of the office building and becomes miserable and irate, losing his temper and growing crazed. He drives through town speeding and crying, startling Jack, who begs Roy to drive him home.
In this passage, Jack’s involvement with Roy extends to participating in Roy’s abuse of Rosemary. Though Jack is too young to know what’s really going on, Roy is setting a foundation for Jack in which monitoring his mother’s behavior and making games of controlling her is the norm. This passage also shows how Jack’s unorthodox “education” in the ways of the world has started at an early age.
Back at the house, Rosemary is cooking and listening to Christmas music. Roy interrogates her about her day, and when he accuses her of trying to “fool” him, she grows quiet. That night, dinner is silent, but after the meal, when Jack goes to bed, he hears his mother and Roy arguing about her right to go shopping on her own.
As Roy’s behavior becomes more shameless and controlling, it is harder and harder to keep Jack from the truth.
That Easter, Jack is baptized with several others from his catechism class. To prepare themselves for communion, they must make confession, and Sister James makes them each appointments to come to the rectory and see the priest. Jack is nervous as his approaches, unsure of what to confess—he feels an overwhelming amount of guilt, but can’t figure out what his particular sin is. When Jack fails to come up with anything to confess to the priest, Sister James takes him aside, offering to take him back to try again after a warm glass of milk.
Jack struggles with feelings of being inherently bad and unworthy—when it comes time to make confession to a priest, confronting these feelings proves too overwhelming for Jack, who isn’t even sure where to begin when it comes to talking about who he is and what he has failed at in his life thus far.
In the kitchen, Sister James tells Jack there’s nothing to be afraid of, and begins “confessing” to him some of her own childhood sins. He sees the nun in a new light, and can tell that Sister James is an anxious woman, about his mother’s age, who just wants to help him. After she tells Jack about stealing pennies and nickels from her father’s wallet as a child, and the additional sin of being a “backbiter” and talking behind her friends’ backs in order to show him that everyone sins, she takes him back to the rectory.
Sister James shows Jack kindness and attempts to impress upon him the idea that just because one has sinned or erred, it doesn’t mean they’re unworthy of love and forgiveness. Sister James must know she’s dealing with a troubled boy, but she can’t imagine the extent of the very adult issues Jack is facing down each day.
Jack sits down in the confession booth once more and tells the priest that he steals nickels and pennies from his mother’s wallet and talks badly about his friends behind their backs. The priest gives Jack his “penance” and absolves him, and then they both step out of the booth. Sister James approaches them; the priest tells Sister James that Jack is a “fine boy.”
Jack is so afraid of admitting the truth about himself and his life that he adopts Sister James’s stories—and thus her identity—as his own in order to escape reality.