Tobias Wolff: Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

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.

17 thoughts on “Tobias Wolff: Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

  1. A treasure indeed Trevor. I loved reading this collection (http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/2008/11/everybody-likes-gory-details.html) and indeed picked it as one of my favourite books of the last decade. He truly is a master of the form and, as you say, there is so much detail in there and enough between the lines to reward repeated readings. Looking back at my old review I saw that, just as you have here, I mentioned that I could write an entire post on any one of the stories. I think that is a fair indication of the quality on offer for anyone who hasn’t yet read any Wolff.

  2. Trevor says:

    And yet . . . I get the feeling that not many read him.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    He’s one of the ten best short-story writers of all time, easy. He deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Chekhov, Carver, De Maupassant, Munro, Capote, Borges, Proulx et al. He is a living master of the form and it’s a shame he isn’t more widely read.

  4. Trevor says:

    Who else would you put on that list, Lee? Lately I’ve been reading more and more and more short story collections. I am enmeshed in several right now.

    I’d certainly add Flannery O’Connor to that list, up at the top, and James Joyce. That makes ten including your list of Wolff, Checkhov, Carver, De Maupassant, Munro, Capote, Borges, and Proulx. I haven’t read much of Proulx’s short stories because I was kind of ho-hummed with The Shipping News. I thought it a little too tricksy. Perhaps I would throw her out and add Cheever. There are, of course, many others who’ve written wonderful short stories without necessarily being known as short story writers, like Cynthia Ozick. And while I think Jhumpa Lahiri went down a bit after Interpreter of Maladies, I’d consider putting her up there, though I want to see more first.

    And, thanks to KFC’s context, I’m now reading Alistair MacLeod’s short story collection Islands. He’s in the top too. But who to kick out at this point?

  5. Rob says:

    Your undying evangelising of Tobias Wolff seems to have finally had an affect on me Trevor (you and a video interview with Wolff that I recently watched – http://bit.ly/8Xf05K ). One copy of Our Story Begins ordered. This marks my first foray into the literary world of Wolff. So exciting reading times ahead I hope.
    Thank you
    Rob

  6. Lee Monks says:

    Oh blimey, Trevor – you see how careless my bunch was? I left out Cheever and O’Connor. And some writers I’ve only read a handful of stories, so I’m no authority on the subject by any means!

    But: here’s a more thought-out twelve (I can’t get down to ten!), in order!

    Raymond Carver
    John Cheever
    Truman Capote
    Alice Munro
    Tobias Wolff
    Anton Chekov
    Flannery O’Connor
    William Trevor
    Saul Bellow
    Jorge Luis Borges
    Ernest Hemingway
    Lydia Davis

    Oh, some of the names left of this list!

  7. Trevor says:

    If I get only one person to read Wolff, Rob, I’ve succeeded! Now, go forth and spread the word —

    That’s a great list, Lee. I forgot William Trevor! And I’ve never read a Saul Bellow short story, so I would have missed him. Let’s see if I can put a list in order (not really, more a general sense of order, with lots of shifting around as my mood changes):

    Flannery O’Connor
    Anton Chekov
    James Joyce
    Truman Capote
    Alice Munro
    J.D. Salinger
    Raymond Carver
    Tobias Wolff
    William Trevor
    Alistair MacLeod
    John Cheever
    Ernest Hemingway

    I put Hemingway at the bottom only because I didn’t know where else to put him. Also because I think of him as a novelist, though his short stories are as fine as any. I’m not that familiar with Lydia Davis. For that matter, I have some collections from Borges, but I have only read a few, so he’s not on my list. Above I explained why I don’t have Bellow on there. Now, you’ve got some explaining to do: why aren’t Salinger and Joyce on your list? I know, it’s impossible to list them all in a confined list. Much better to do this stuff in tiers and let them mingle in groups that grow larger and larger.

  8. I ordered this collection after John Self’s enthusiastic review and jumped right in when it arrived. And put it down in disappointment an hour and four stories later.

    I think short stories, even more than novels, require the right kind of mood from the reader — so I am willing to at least consider that I wasn’t in the mood for an author whom others obviously love (and I love his novels). The book is still close at hand and this review is a reminder that I should try it again.

    And that “mood” aspect is why I won’t be trying to produce a list of twelve writers. I’m pretty sure it would be a different list tomorrow that it would be today.

  9. Trevor says:

    I agree with your thoughts on “mood,” Kevin, though I am curious about whether you will warm to his short stories or if it just won’t impress. Wolff, I’m seeing, has stiff competition in Canada. Besides Munro, the MacLeod stories are just wonderful.

  10. Lee Monks says:

    Trevor, it’s almost unforgivable, I know, to leave those guys off (and Beckett for that matter) the list. I love both, that’s a fact. I have no excuse! I’ll stretch my list for 15 to save face!

    Alistair MacLeod: I don’t know this writer but if he gets on your list of 12 that’s good enough for me: I’ll order some.

    Lydia Davis is just wonderful. There are one or two pieces in Varieties Of Disturbance that, when I read them, had me agog, so exquisitely affecting were they.

    Kevin: of course you’re right. But I’m a sad case: I can’t resist a list!

  11. Trevor says:

    I have to give Kevin all the credit for pointing me to MacLeod. He’d recommended him before, but it took his “name the last five books you read” game to get me to buy his books. You’ll find it won’t be hard to get all of his work. Two collections of short stories, now all collected in one volume called Island, and one novel, No Great Mischief. I began his first story one night at around midnight, thinking, hmm, I’d like to see how he sounds before going to bed. The going to bed part didn’t work well.

  12. Lee Monks says:

    Sold! I will order Island as soon as I can. Willa Cather, by the way: glorious.

  13. Trevor says:

    Ah yes — Willa Cather’s stories are beautiful. I think I’ve mentioned it somewhere around here before, but “Neighbor Rosicky” is one of my favorites of all time.

  14. Lee Monks says:

    They really are, and the term is apt.

    And no mention of Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, George Saunders, Thom Jones or Isaac Babel here either. That there are so many exceptional exponents of the form out there is a great thing; trying to convince people to read short-stories is a whole other matter!

  15. Okay, you are sucking me into the lists (debate). Tolstoy, Updike and even Ian MacEwan deserve thought, but perhaps not a position on the list. I’d say the short story form is more alive than most people think.

    And let me add two great examples from the last 12 months (both reviewed on my blog): Maile Meloy Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (a great Montana book for those who were raised in the area I might say) and Daniel Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders who got five stars from both me and John Self.

  16. Lee Monks says:

    Kevin, absolutely on the Meloy, which is tremendous and had completely slipped my mind. The Mueenuddin I’m well aware of but haven’t got round to yet. I need no further encouragement!

  17. Lee Monks says:

    PS I can’t argue with the other writers you mention, of course. In particular, Updike’s short fiction seems undervalued. I love the Early Stories collection. And may I, in passing, mention Steven Millhauser?

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