Discussed in this essay:
Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, Tobias Wolff. Knopf. 400pp, $26.95.
The Night In Question: Stories, Tobias Wolff. Vintage. 224pp, $13.95.
Old School, Tobias Wolff. Vintage. 208pp, $12.95.
In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, Tobias Wolff. Vintage. 240pp, $13.95.
Asked in an interview why he chose “The Night in Question” as the title story for his 1996 story collection, Tobias Wolff responded, “I couldn’t get it out of my head and it seemed like a wonderful phrase to begin a story with, suggesting something ominous, something unfolding, like ‘Our story begins’.” Twelve years later, Wolff has finally gotten around to using that title, this time for his volume of new and selected stories. That such a title—so traditional, and yet to Wolff so “ominous”—speaks to his work’s consistency of tone and concern. For nearly a quarter century, Tobias Wolff has been perhaps the most revered and read American short story writer besides Raymond Carver, and he’s attained that position through a constant attention to the dark, private aspects of his characters—their lies, their ethical missteps, and their attempts to hide them.
Our Story Begins consists of 100 pages of new material and just under 300 pages of reprinted work, which is a puzzling choice for a writer whose older books are continuously in print through major publishers. No doubt this volume is meant as a career capstone, a sort of greatest hits selection appended to the newer work, and that’s too bad since the ten new stories show a more comfortable, mature writer than many of his earlier efforts; in the 12 years since his last published collection, Wolff has generally jettisoned the tidy moralizing that has too often overwhelmed his characters, yet the new stories feel like a structural afterthought to The Night in Question, which appears nearly in full here. Our Story Begins therefore serves as an all-encompassing introduction to Wolff the fiction writer, but a stand-alone new volume of stories would have better accentuated his continued growth as an artist.
The quintessential Wolff story, and certainly his most famous short work, is “Bullet in the Brain,” the final story in The Night in Question. In it, Anders, “a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed,” is shot during a bank holdup, and the greater part of the text details his final thoughts. Formally, it breaks slightly from Wolff’s typical reliance on more traditional linear structures, but in every other regard, both good and bad, it exemplifies Wolff’s work. It concerns a man who’s unaware what a definitive crossroads he’s in, its prose is lean and clear without being minimalist, its cynicism is tempered by ultimate sentimentality, and its moral is unmistakable.
For good measure, and quite appropriately, “Bullet in the Brain” even contains a Hemingway reference. “Papa,” as one character dismissively calls him in Wolff’s 2003 novel Old School, is unavoidable when discussing Wolff’s work. Wolff acknowledges as much in his masterful Vietnam memoir In Pharaoh’s Army, when he addresses why he joined the military: “The men I’d respected when was growing up had all served, and most of the writers I looked up to—Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Erich Maria Remarque, and of course Hemingway, to whom I turned for guidance in all things.” Wolff has persistently stressed the importance of Hemingway in his own work: a key plot element of Old School hinges on the writer’s mythic hold over the protagonist, and Anders scoffs at his assailants in “Bullet in the Brain” for stealing a phrase from “The Killers.” This admiration, however, has made many reviewers overstate the actual similarities between the two on the page. Hemingway’s prose is spare from chiseling, as if he wrote his paragraphs and then removed the parts where his characters actually say what they mean. Take Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises:
I never used to realize it, I guess. I try and play it along and just not make trouble for people. Probably I never would have had any trouble if I hadn’t run into Brett when they shipped me to England. I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have. Well, people were that way. To hell with people. The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling all that. Good advice, anyway. Not to think about it. Oh, it was swell advice. Try and take it sometime. Try and take it.
The dominant metaphor for his character—the genital mutilation he received in World War I—remains implicit, and his withholding it is indicative of his shame.
Wolff, however, comes at his descriptions from the opposite direction, telling his readers only what they need to know:
Gilbert stopped at a diner on the way home. He ate a piece of apple pie, then drank coffee and watched the cars go past. To an ordinary person driving by he supposed he must look pretty tragic, sitting here alone over a coffee cup, cigarette smoke curling past his face. And the strange thing is, that person would be right. He was about to betray his best friends. . . . He would betray himself, too—his belief, held deep under the stream of his flippancy, that he was steadfast and loyal. And he knew what he was doing. That’s why this whole thing was tragic, because he knew was he was doing and could not do otherwise.
This, with the exception of Wolff’s orderly description of images, seriatim, is actually the opposite of Hemingway’s style; it tells us exactly (and only) what we need to know for the scene to make sense, and even explicitly states the emotional condition of his protagonist. Hemingway is purposefully spare where Wolff is more often simply workmanlike, his prose always subservient to the story’s morality.
This folksy style is certainly one of the reasons why Wolff is equally, if not more, renowned as a memoirist. In Pharaoh’s Army was preceded by This Boy’s Life, his account of an early adolescence spent with his mother and her frequently tyrannical boyfriends; in both these memoirs, which are rightfully considered masterpieces of the form, Wolff’s understated prose serves to disarm the genre’s inherent self-absorption; no one could ever accuse Wolff of bolstering his story with unearned personal heroism or by overdramatizing his material. In his fiction, however, Wolff’s cleanness makes many of his stories feel descriptively undernourished.
This shortcoming stands out particularly in the stories where Wolff’s moral imperatives overshadow his characters. In “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” one of Wolff’s longer stories and one of only five pieces from his 1985 collection, Back in the World, to garner inclusion in Our Story Begins. A couple, Mark and Krystal, experience the title predicament and arrive at a rural California gas station where the specifics of the auto trouble require Mark to take off toward a far-away town in search of parts. He leaves pregnant Krystal in the hands of the station attendants and is soon picked up by a group of drugged-out young people bound for a nebulously defined film set in northern San Lucas. There’s an air of Carver in Wolff’s drifting, lower class protagonists, and a nod to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in the gas station’s predatory young men, but Wolff’s prose never reaches the tension of either.
Mark waited for a moment. Then he tried again. Still nothing. The ignition went tick tick tick tick, and that was all. Mark turned it off and the three of them sat there. . . . Mark felt the men watching him. That was why he didn’t lower his head to the wheel.
Krystal waits at the gas station, and a large part of Mark’s narrative is a direct, omniscient view into his thoughts as he vacillates about the usefulness of marriage, the possibility of leaving her alone and joining the film crew, the escalating hopelessness of his situation. It is a story that calls out for a parched, arid style to equal the squelching physical setting, yet Wolff cordons off the natural world and resorts to a clean, well-lighted moral place inside Mark’s head. It’s as if Wolff decided to write a story about a man who flirts with leaving his marriage under a moment of duress and then devised a plot to service this moral lapse. His desert is merely a metaphor for his character’s sudden and frightening expanse of options; it never comes alive as a physical reality on its own.
Wolff succumbs to the ethical-conundrum-as-storyline fallacy a number of times throughout Our Story Begins. There’s “Mortals,” where an obituary writer’s fact-checking negligence costs him his job. It’s all buildup to the eventual lines, “You can lead a good life without being a celebrity. . . . People with big names aren’t always big people,” delivered by a living man whose obituary ran in the morning edition. Or “Next Door,” from Wolff’s first collection, his 1981 In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, in which a man contemplates the abusive relationship of his neighbors and espouses, resignedly, the notion that “it’s awful, what we get used to.”
Plenty of great fiction has grown out of similar moralizing, but Wolff’s prose is such that he too often feels beholden to his own ethical theses. Throughout his career, he’s shown a shrewd eye for his characters’ inner struggles (particularly in memoirs, when they are his own), but a strangely anti-modern prudishness towards matters of the body. In Pharaoh’s Army contains surprisingly few battle scenes for a war remembrance, to the point where a sudden intestinal embarrassment stands out loudly from the rest of Wolff’s austere writing: “Then something went slack in my belly and I felt a stream of shit pouring hotly out of me, down my legs, even into my boots. I put my head against the wall and wept for very shame.”
Compared to virtually any other combat narrative, this is pretty light suffering, and it’s indicative of Wolff’s cleanliness that the filth not only overtakes him but that he weeps “for very shame.” In Our Story Begins, the only similarly filthy act is a dog stopping “to squeeze out a few turds.” Old School takes place in an all-boys private academy much like Pennsylvania’s Hill School, where Wolff was educated, and it’s untypically sterile for its environment; there’s virtually no mention of sex or other potential vices other than cigarette smoking, which the narrator does sneakily and with no great youthful contrarian flourish. The Carver comparison only goes so far with Wolff, limited perhaps only to their similar ages and their unmistakable Americanness; there’s very little dirtiness in Wolff’s brand of realism.
Obviously there’s no Rabelaisian quota for Wolff or any other writer, but given his typical themes (moral and ethical struggles), his frequent settings (Vietnam, boys’ schools, marital beds), and his stated influences, his writing’s relative asceticism tends to stick out, and it’s little surprise that many of his most successful stories employ a more visceral, wrenching tone. In some cases, like his great story “The Chain,” the increased grittiness even lends poignancy to his spare prose:
Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked. A big black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter. He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming. Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went.
“The Chain” ends 14 pages later on a moralistic note similar to many of Wolff’s stories, but this one feels more earned since the physical setting is rendered with such intensity and immediacy. Likewise, “Smorgasbord,” which takes place in a similar academy to Old School, focuses entirely on its characters’ restless adolescent appetites—for food, for sex, for excitement—so that it feels more honest than the novel. Old School is an often-beautiful reflection on the writerly craft, but again its particular setting seems incidental; it feels like two mixed memoirs, one of prep school and another of the writing process, willed together into fiction.
Wolff published his first novel, Ugly Rumors, in 1975, and he’s since repudiated the work entirely. It hasn’t been listed in any of his subsequent publications, and Old School was universally advertised as his first full-length fiction work. Our Story Begins further bears out that Wolff apparently feels he’s gotten better with age. His first two collections are represented by a combined nine stories, whereas The Night in Question is represented by 12. The ten new stories, particularly the two long concluding ones, “The Benefit of the Doubt” and “Deep Kiss,” feel much less like ethical quandaries in search of a narrative than many of the older ones. Both are character-driven and heavy on detail, and both are long enough to get lost in and appreciate Wolff’s growing craft. Most importantly, their ultimate points are made only implicitly. For a writer whose career has been so steadfastly focused on storytelling, Tobias Wolff has finally grown confident enough to let his stories carry his morals, and not vice versa.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He is the managing editor of Splice Today.
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