When I started to read Tobias Wolff, I made it my goal to read everything available by this very neglected American author. Reading everything essentially meant two memoirs (This Boy’s Life, In Pharaoh’s Army), two novels (The Barracks Thief, Old School), and four collections of short stories (In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, The Night in Question, Our Story Begins). I’ve finished the memoirs and novels, and I’d rank all of them highly (though This Boy’s Life and Old School were far above the other two). I haven’t been sitting around since finishing those, either; I’ve gotten a good start on the four collections of short stories, particularly since his last collection, Our Story Begins (2008), as well as offering ten new stories, pulls together several of the short stories from the earlier three volumes. There’s still quite a bit to be read, though, because this collection leaves out more than it’s put in, including the majority of the first two collections.
Though Wolff’s novels and memoirs have been well received award-winners, many still consider him a short story writer. There is good reason for this: his short stories are masterpieces of the genre. Wolff has control over what he’s doing, and his first sentence immediately gets us in the narrative; he knows his characters well and knows how to present them with economical detail so we feel we know much more about them than what is actually revealed; along those same lines, he writes prose so simple, clear, and concise that in just a few pages he’s able to give his readers a complete and enriching experience. We barely realize we’ve been reading at all.
Here is a good example from his story “Next Door”; Wolff jumps right in to the story, which, though it begins with quite a bit of action, is a very reflective first-person introspection.
I wake up afraid. My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. “They’re at it again,” she says.
I go to the window. All their lights are on, upstairs and down, as if they have money to burn. He yells, she screams something back, the dog barks. There is a short silence, then the baby cries, poor thing.
“Better not stand there,” says my wife. “They might see you.”
I say, “I’m going to call the police,” knowing she won’t let me.
“Don’t,” she says.
She’s afraid they’ll poison our cat if we complain.
Next door the man is still yelling, but I can’t make out what he’s saying over the dog and the baby. The woman laughs, not really meaning it — “Ha! Ha! Ha!” — and suddenly gives a sharp little cry. Everything goes quiet.
As I said above, this story becomes much more about the person telling it than these lines suggest. And the whole story is only a few pages long. Wolff can quickly pull a reader in, give that reader full characters, scenes, and emotions, and deliver a pensive and satisfying ending.
Though many of Wolff’s stories deal with soldiers or with troubled youth, he is generally varied in presentation. I spread this collection out over months, and I never felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. I doubt it would have been much different had I read them all together in one sitting, so varied are they. In fact, the only thing that was familiar each time I sat down to read one was the comfort I’d feel immediately upon digesting the first few lines. One story is a stretched-time account of a bullet going through the brain; it is aptly called “Bullet Through the Brain.” There’s also a very strange story called “Mortals” about a journalist who has little to wake up for each morning.
There was more to it than that. Since I was still on the bottom rung in metro, I wrote a lot of obituaries. Some days they gave me a choice between that and marriage bulletins, but most of the time obits were all I did, one after another, morning to night. After four months of this duty I was full of the consciousness of death. It soured me. It puffed me up with morbid snobbery, the feeling that I knew a secret nobody else had even begun to suspect. It made me wearily philosophical about the value of faith and passion and hard work, at a time when my life required all of these. It got me down.
Things get worse for the narrator when the subject of one of his obituaries comes to the office to visit: evidently, the subject is not actually dead.
Wolff’s stories, though written in a crystal clear prose with a narrative stream that sweeps you up and doesn’t let you go, are not actually “simple.” There are many layers and metaphors, so they work well for second and third readings. On a first read, I didn’t pay much attention to the sentence where the narrator lists his disillusionment of “faith and passoin and hard work” when that is exactly what he needed. Also, I didn’t catch the underlying imagery of closing line of “Mortals” my first time through it, but it’s clearly meaningful in the context of life and death, though the narrator is not dying at that moment:
I slipped him a quarter, hoping he’d let me pass.
As for the ten new stories featured in this collection, I feel I could pick out any one and we could have a long discussion about it. But I’ll choose one, “Nightingale,” and stick to my theme of showing the beginning, just to show how well Wolff expeditiously lays out most elements of a multi-layered story. Here are the first few lines:
Dr. Booth took several wrong turns during the drive upstate. It vexed him to get lost like this in front of his son, especially since the fault lay with the lousy map the Academy had sent him, but Owen was in one of his trances and didn’t seem to notice.
The strained father/son relationship is clearly established here; at least we feel the disconnect. We’ll see in a bit that it’s worse than that. Later the tension is built as we learn that Dr. Booth is taking Owen to the Academy as a kind of cure (or punishment) for being so distant and, as he feels, so lazy:
Dr. Booth could well understand why Owen didn’t want to go to the Academy. He was comfortable at home. He had his foolish dog, his lazy friends, the big house with all its sunny corners for reading, or for staring at nothing and making funny noises, or whatever he did all day. When Dr. Booth went into the kitchen, there was Owen. In the living room, Owen again. The front yard, Owen; the backyard, the basement, the hammock — Owen!
Of course, the thought of going to the Academy combined with the knowledge that it is meant to be a remedy, only makes Owen more despondent and more unintelligible to Dr. Booth. But back to the first lines in that first paragraph where Wolff is also laying out an important theme in the story when he describes the wrong turns and the faulty map. These wrong turns and faulty maps tie into fatherhood nicely, but never explicitly. And that first paragraph continues, only getting more complex:
His eyes were fixed on the far distance and his lips formed whispery sounds in a cadence that suggested poetry or music. Dr. Booth knew better than to try and make sense of it, but he couldn’t stop himself. He thought he recognized one word — nightingale — and that awoke a memory of three children, himself and his older sisters, sitting in a garden at dusk while somewhere above them a bird sang. It was, he knew, a trick memory, a mirage; there had been no such garden and no such evening. Still, the thought of his sisters, one drowned in a boating accident courtesy of her dimwit husband, the other far away and silent for years, made him even gloomier than he already was.
The story suddenly opens up in a strange way when we get this “trick memory.” Figuring out how it all fits together, digging into this story to understand the characters’ motivations (to say nothing of witnessing the horrors at the Academy), is a great treat — and it is, again, a very short story.
For those interested in getting to know Wolff, I am certain that if you start with these stories you, like me, won’t stop until you’ve read everything he’s written. Our Story Begins is a treasure.