Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Tobias Wolff’s “All Ahead of Them” was originally published in the July 8 & 15, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

I’m a big fan of Tobias Wolff. I’ve posted about most of his books here (click here to see the posts or check out the author index here), and I’ve been tempted to go back and blog about each of his stories one at a time (someday). It has taken me too long to find the time to write up my thoughts, but here they are in brief.

“All Ahead of Them” is a honeymoon story that begins with the potential demise of the recent marriage and ends with an all’s-well (except it isn’t). When we start, the husband, Bud (“His name was Thomas, and he liked to think of himself as Thomas, but everyone called him Bud.”) is just finishing up a phone conversation with his brother:

“It’s all a misunderstanding,” he said. “I’m just on my way somewhere. I’ll call you later. O.K.?” His mouth was so dry he could hardly get the words out, and he heard the strain in his brother’s voice as they said their goodbyes.

Wolff doesn’t tell us what’s going on at this point; after all, Bud himself doesn’t want to acknowledge it. Instead, we step back as Bud reconsiders his relationship with his new wife, Arden (like Bud, this isn’t her real name; her real name is the reverse, Nedra). Bud knows that there was no misunderstanding.

He had understood, even as he used the word “misunderstanding” — always mealy on the tongue, always prelude to an alibi — that there’d been no misunderstanding. Which meant that his wife of six days was a liar and a thief. Well.

Well, well, well.

He’s realizes he’s always known this, which means he’s deliberately avoided fully knowing his new wife. The way Wolff navigates through Bud’s growing understanding is magnificent. We feel for Bud as he struggles to recast his relationship with Arden. We may recognize in ourselves his desire to love Arden for who she is — or, who she might be if she could cease lying — and to protect her from the suspicions of family and friends. After all, she is his wife. He accepts her. And it seems this will be their life together: her causing problems, him covering her tracks. He accepts this: “The mistake would always be his.”

Except, in the final paragraph, a darkness descends, and we get a glimpse at why Bud thinks this marriage will be worth it. Bud will pay for her deceptions, but he will exact a higher payment from Arden.

Arden has been absent this whole time, while Bud paces the hotel room. She’s gone out shopping. Bud thinks, “That bad girl. Where was she?” The final sentences are chilling. Bud wonders when “Nedra” will return. He will make her model the clothes for him and demand she take them off. As he makes these uncharacteristic demands, “She would hear the thickness in his voice, and hesitate, and smile.” But this isn’t a smile of recognition; it’s a smile covering up the awkwardness of an unexpected glimpse at a stranger. This is what they have ahead of them.

Wolff returns, then, with a remarkable story about deception and the quiet game of recompense — all as a marriage is beginning. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Betsy

“All Ahead of Them,” by Tobias Wolff, is a tart confection in honor of June and weddings. It entertains us with the Honeymoon from Hell, while archly wondering how closely any marriage comes to it. And all the rest of this is spoiler. I really enjoyed this story for its various duplicities and tricks; I recommend it.

The title, “All Ahead of Them,” most likely refers to the future life that Bud and Arden will have together in their marriage. The nature of that married life is less than certain. The story concerns itself in passing with Tom’s occasional impotence and in more detail with his growing acceptance during his honeymoon of what his bride is really like: that he has married a thief and a liar, and that most likely she has been signaling herself as such during their whole courtship. Oh, and did I say Tom? I meant Bud. Bud’s real name is Tom, and he prefers Thomas, but everyone calls him Bud.

I really enjoyed this peculiar story, one which concerns itself with a hapless husband in way over his head and how he has bought into his wife’s lying, spend-thrift, bad-girlways. The enjoyment came from the slow unraveling of the wife’s true nature, and then, the besotted husband’s. It seems as if he is only able to unleash his sexuality if she steals, lies to him, and puts him in the position of protecting her. What he is protecting her from is complicated. His role is to mend her broken fences, but at the same time, do it so secretly, that she will never have to know that he knows what she has done. She is so compelling to him that he plans to have a secret bank account in order that he will be able to continue to secretly rescue her. Well! What he has ahead of him is misery!

The business with the double names is neat. The husband is known to everyone as “Bud,” a kind of baby name, while his real name, Thomas, which he prefers, reminds this reader of doubting Thomas — the disciple who doubted that Jesus really appeared to the others after death, somewhat like the way this husband doubts that his wife’s sociopathic nature will be a problem. In fact, what “Bud-Thomas” really needs is a completely new name, one that would signify that he’s gotten beyond buying excitement through his wife’s transgressions. This guy’s odd name (Bud-Thomas) reminds me of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s John Thomas. Except that this is a lank bud-thomas which only flowers under duress. The husband, after all, says that he dreaded the rest of his honeymoon after he had had 6 days of being unable to perform.

The wife’s double name is even more complicated — she is named for her grandmother Nedra, but has changed her name to Arden, probably because her grandmother died in jail. Or did she? Is this just the biggest lie of all, the one Arden uses to lure her victims in? Or is the biggest whopper the one about how she broke off an engagement to a rich guy for him? Whatever it is they have ahead of them, I don’t think he is going to have the wherewithal to survive it.

Wolff suggests that any marriage is a doubles match, and in that, of course, he is right. But this particular pair is so crazy you feel relieved to recognize that in your own case, you are only dealing with a garden variety set of double identities.

The title suggests that the husband is going to have quite a chore keeping ahead his wife’s lies and transgressions. But she is beautiful and electric and he is willing. But Bud-Thomas is one strange dude; he says his wife’s lies are believable to him, and he thinks his own lies to cover her lies are equally believable. But in fact, probably everyone already has their number. What Bud-Thomas has ahead of him is a big crack-up! Why I find this delicious, I’m not sure, except that my own marriage, in comparison, is a piece of (wedding) cake.

This particular June is a rare wedding month, in the scheme of things, and Wolff is really enjoying getting a warning out ahead of time — look out (!), skim milk really does masquerade as cream, and something in us cannot help but buy right into it. One question though: just why does Bud-Thomas think that Nedra-Arden won’t steal from him? He’s going to need that secret bank account for more than just bailing her out.

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By |2016-08-09T17:15:29-04:00July 1st, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tobias Wolff|20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Roger July 4, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Betsy, those are really interesting comments on this fascinating story. I agree with you about Wolff’s use of Thomas as a reference to doubting Thomas, especially given the religious overtones of Woff’s other work.

    I’m not so sure the Bud-Arden marriage is doomed for a crackup, though! Bud/Thomas seems pretty pleased with what he’s discovered about his wife – “[t]hat bad girl,” as he playfully puts it near the end. His eyes are wide open now. He knows she will steal and lie, but is “glad in his knowledge” and in “her certainty of his innocence.” That last part is especially intriguing – Bud/Thomas seems to relish the notion that he will be the ultimate deceiver in this relationship, because Arden will never figure out that he has figured her out. Because he has now sleuthed through everything, he sees himself as in control – he will “demand” that she model the clothes she has bought and she will be surprised by the “thickness in his voice.” He has become the analog to the “scarred stranger” in his mother’s kitchen, whose embrace she had “entered into.” (There seems to be an Oedipal thing going on there, though I’m puzzled as to what purpose it serves – couldn’t Wolff have put the dream in someone else’s head?). Maybe some peculiar role-playing is just what this particular marriage needs to thrive!

  2. Betsy July 5, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Roger – fun fine tuning! I hear you. This may be a marriage that will thrive – a little like the cruise ship Concordia!

    Bud “relishes the notion that he is the ultimate deceiver” and Arden “will never figure out that he has figured her out.” This is so sharp!

    Your commentary puts me in mind, (maybe because of the oedipal commentary), of the way people try to figure out what kept their own parents together – if their parents were nuts – given the chaos that a couple like this would provide their children.

    Wolff is funny. Delicious is what I think. Because if you grew up with a set of parents who were nuts, you either have to laugh or cry. The crying is easy. Laughing is harder. Laughing is a form of love – there’s a cracked appreciation here of the possible complexity of people, of their possible worth. There’s a sharedness it. But the mess is implicit in Bud’s conversation with his brother.

    There’s a similarity in this storytelling to the storytelling that gets told at a funeral – the uncles all putting a good light on it and telling “remember when”. And everyone feels their loneliness lightened by the possibility that this had been all mad-cap. And when the funeral is over and the uncles are gone, you remember the uncles with such fondness for their generosity, for making you feel ordinary – for giving grief some respect.

    Wolff reminds me of Faulkner. Faulkner is big on how growing up with lies torques you. But of course his response is more grave. His boys have to figure out where the truth really lies amid the lies, and figuring out the truth, for him, is a journey to the underworld. Of course, Faulkner can be funny too. Benjy Compson’s truth is love, and Benjy’s story is a cry for help so naked you could not bear it without some distance. And point of view or humor gives you that. But imagine Bud and Arden as your parents. Hupp-uh-wuh! as my three year old grand daughter would say.

    I’m curious about the religious overtones that you remember from Wolff’s other work. What I liked about the ‘doubting thomas’ thing is that it feels so off-hand. That you hear it in the back of your head and think – what’s that doing there? I have not read Tobias Wolff before (nor seen the movie), but I am interested in him. Any recommendations?

  3. Roger July 5, 2013 at 10:38 am

    Betsy, I hope that Bud and Arden have no children! I don’t think they’d make very good parents. On the other hand, their offspring would probably make very good material for more fiction.

    I recently read a collection of Wolff’s stories from, I think, the 1980s, called Back in the World. I’d recommend it, though several of the stories are borderline depressing. Two of the stories in this collection with religious overtones are “The Rich Brother” (last story in the book and my favorite) and “The Missing Person.” I appreciate how Wolff, in these stories and elsewhere, provides a seemingly straightforward narrative with short, crisp sentences, underneath which lie lots of profound, complicated questions for the reader to sort through.

  4. Mimi July 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Roger and Betsy, thanks for the suggestions. Also, you might like to listen to T.C.Boyle read Wolff’s story “Bullet In The Brain,” and Boyle’s interpretation with Debra Treisman interviewing Boyle about his take on the story.

    I seem to have misinterpreted the current Wolff story, or got the wrong signal or perhaps drew my own conclusions from the incidents given.. Totally different, Boyle’s own story “The Lie” was straightforward and there was little doubt about the outcome.That doesn’t mean one was better than the other, both authors created humor in the midst of uneasiness.

    I like the way Wolff sequenced his events, from the beginning when Bud – Thomas was incontinent, and all the succeeding events and background history of the families, and the planting of seeds of recognition of what Bud’s life would be. Wolff’s smooth language created a kaleidoscope like shifting mirrors. Here were two people who actually didn’t know who they were, living in a fantasy world, more important to them than reality. .

    Even though Wolff told the story with great confidence, I admit I was stumped the first time Arden’s mother’s “dream” came into the story.. I mean how did this fit into the lineup of what I had decided was a story about “deception,” So now I was uneasy with my own interpretation and wondered how Poe’s advice.(“If you have a gun in the beginning of the story, it better turn up in the end,” could happen. and it did.

    Could it have been that the scar on the soldier’s face in the dream,gave a clue? Bud-Thomas’s mother had a sly smile on her face as she related the dream. Was this the missing jig-saw piece? Was the man in the dream e real father? Did his mother have an affair with a soldier, and this was her way of telling Thomas that this man in the dream was his real father? It fits with the theme of duplicity?.

    That’s the way I see it. Mimi.

  5. Mimi July 5, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Oh, heck. In the third paragraph from the end, it’s Bud-Thomas’s mother’s dream I apologize..

  6. Betsy July 5, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Hi Roger – Thank you for the book title and the specific story recommendations – and I’m good with borderline depressing. I’m looking forward to reading it. Be back at you in a month or so. And I’m really looking forward to the “seemingly straightforward narrative.”

    Mimi – I definitely want to listen to T.C. Boyle read Wolff and talk about the story. Thank you. I am a terrific T.C. Boyle fan. But it’ll take me about a month!

    And clearly – that man in the kitchen is someone to be watching …

  7. Betsy July 6, 2013 at 6:43 am

    I woke up thinking about how the Wolff story and the Oates story speak to each other. For one thing, there is the gender of each author, the woman writing about the need for people to choose commitment, and the man writing about the need he has for sexual communication, regardless the price. In fact, though, Wolff’s main character is committed to his partner, but the terms of it are that he overlook his wife’s lying and stealing and his own collusion in it.

    Both men’s actions and choices are gallant, in their own way, but Oates’s character is heroic, while Wolff’s is odd, extreme, selfish. So the question is, Is one of these stories about what we want and the other about what is what is real?

    While Oates specifically questions “romance”, are her two characters part of a romance, a series of actions that are unlikely? Or is it in extreme situations that fiction works best?

    In both stories, the man is touched to the point of action when he sees that the woman needs help, is not “strong”.

    And Roger, your point about role playing obtains in both stories. In “Mastiff”, Oates has the woman choosing to perform the actions of love as if it were a costume she is trying on, as if her actions are love itself, and of course, perhaps they are.

    But while Oates’s characters get a chance to act out their best selves, the Wolff characters appear to be merely acting out.

    But while the Oates story is fantastic, and told in a manner to suggest that it is fantastic, the Wolff story seems real, mundane, and possible, While the Oates story has a frightening episode at its center, the Wolff story has frightening possibilities at its center. In that way, the Wolff story seems more real – more related to our reality.

    They both have a kind of message in them regarding relationships: Oates that we need each other and need to overcome our fear of being destroyed or obliterated by a relationship, and Wolff suggesting that the very fabric of relationship is threaded with lies. The one is more hopeful, more ‘romantic’, and the other more hard-boiled about what constitutes the cracked human condition. Oates wants us to transcend ourselves, and Wolff wants us to see ourselves. Because I see both stories as particular and also universal.

    But I loved both stories as stories – as entertainments, as thrillers, and as feats of story-telling. I can’t stop thinking about either one.

    And, at the moment, I like the way they crystallize into gendered opposition, and how I feel as if both are true.

  8. Mimi July 10, 2013 at 7:08 am

    Hi Betsy. I love the way you compare the sories as different and still the same. But even though fiction itself is a lie the lie must come through as truth. In the Wolff story why the scar on the mans face? What was the meaning of the dream?

  9. Trevor July 10, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Hi everyone! I finally updated the post to include my thoughts. Though I read the story just after it was made available, I had a devil of a time finding time to put down my thoughts.

    Wolff is one of my favorites, and this may be one of my favorite stories of his, so you know I admired this one a great deal.

  10. Trevor July 10, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    A few random thoughts after reading through the comments above:

    Mimi, I know Chekhov is famous for saying if you have a gun in a story it had better go off, but is this something Poe said as well? If so, I’m curious why we’ve been crediting Chekhov all these years!

    Betsy, you ask for recommendations on Tobias Wolff, and I see Roger has answered, but I wanted to chime in. The simple answer is everything :-) . While I myself like to read entire story collections, you can get a collection of his selected stories in Our Story Begins. This might be a good introduction to his work. Also, I love his short work best, but his novels/memoirs are also among my favorites. I recommend the combo This Boy’s Life and Old School.

  11. Mimi July 10, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks Trevor, and thank you for reading my review.. You are quite right, it was Chekhov. I had always heard the quote as a Poe quote, I believe in my writing classes, and also a quote I particularly liked. I’m probably the only Chekhov reader who didn’t realize it was he who made the famous quote. I never actually looked it up, and quote it many times. I’m also reading a biography right now of Edgar Allan Poe and rereading his stories, and look to see if he followed what I thought was his rule.. So your posting here is a great help to me.

    Anyway, I had hoped by using the “Chekhov” quote, I’d find other opinions about the Tobias Wolff story. I loved the story, it was surely a block-buster, but I couldn’t understand the dream incident and the scar on the man’s face. I wanted to understand if Chekhov’s gun quote was necessary when we write. .Does the reader care ? Why is it necessary? Should the scar have a meaning to the theme of the story, or is the scar merely a description? I’m sure Wolff had a reason for the dream and the scar, and I guess we have to draw our own conclusions. But I still believe Chekhov was right and Wolff was using Chekhov’s rule in his story. If I can only figure it out.

    .

  12. Roger July 10, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Hmm… Maybe Bud’s new knowledge about Nedra, and the effect that knowledge has on him, is an analog to the scar on the face of the man in the dream?

  13. Trevor July 10, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Thanks for your reiteration of your question, Mimi. I was distracted wondering if that was a Poe quote first :-) .

    I think Roger is on to something when he says the scar is an analog to Bud’s own “wound,” which has quickly healed over but will remain for all the days ahead of them. I think there’re other ways of looking at it: The scar across the face is another kind of mask, something that distorts an otherwise recognizable image (though, of course, the mother is saying she didn’t know who the man was in any case, scar or no scar). The scar could also be threatening, a sign of brutality; here’s this disfigured man — was he in a fight? — coming to hug me.

    Other than the scar, I’m not sure I understand your question about the dream incident itself. I do remember that when reading the story the first time I wondered if it would come into play in a way more overt than simply “sometimes we don’t know the people we live with.” I’m sure it was exactly what you’re referring to: a gun had been shown and I expected it to go off. I was mightily pleased, then, when the last paragraph rolled around and it all tied up so nicely and darkly. I don’t think the dream is his mother’s attempt to tell her son she had an affair with a soldier. I think it’s simply that the man claiming to be her husband was a stranger.

    And she recounted the dream with a bemused smile, the same smile Bud imagines will be on Arden’s face when he demands she submit to being the object of his gaze.

    I didn’t touch on that smile in my post above. What does it mean? “Bemused is one of those slippery words that can mean “confused” or “fascinated or tolerated amusement.” I think it works both ways here. His mother (and Arden) smile when confronted by a stranger — a stranger who exhibits signs of brutality, no less. The smile may cover up their intimation of fear. The smile may cover up their confusion. Or the smile may cover up their own thrill at this unexpected twist.

    In any case, both women enter into the embrace of this threatening stranger.

  14. Rosalind Kurzer July 11, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Read “This Boys Life and Old School”. What amazes me is how Tobias was able to make a success of his life. In his artistic gift he strips away the masks we wear. We all have scars visible or not.

  15. Mimi July 11, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    But in this story, for some reason the “strange man” with the scar was wearing a military uniform. Perhaps his military uniform went along with the scar, to produce fear. Why the military uniform, and why describe the man as “strange” were some of the questions I asked myself at the end of this excellent story.. On the other hand, maybe the scar made the man look strange I do like the word strange, which in a way does suggest fear.

  16. Trevor July 12, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Hmmm, I guess I keep subconsciously avoiding your query about the military uniform. I don’t have a good idea why that’s there, unless it again emphasizes the strangeness and the slight threat. Or perhaps it does the opposite and gives her a reason to trust him and embrace him, out of loyalty, out of guilt, even if she doesn’t want to. All of that ties into the final scene, but I’m not satisfied they are good guesses.

  17. Rosalind Kurzer July 13, 2013 at 11:50 am

    A uniform is another disguise… Does it really tell us who the person is?

  18. Jon July 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Like Trevor, I’m also a really big fan of Wolff and this story doesn’t disappoint at all. There’s a distinctive emotional response Wolff’s stories elicits, and this story, in particular, feels like Wolff in his purest form.

    On the surface, there’s something almost pedestrian about the plot and writing style. (Though Wolff reminds me at times of Philip Roth in that it feels like there’s never a misplaced word or awkward, hard-to-understand sentence–you really can relax into feeling like you’re in the presence of a master.) But underneath the somewhat basic plot, everything feels like it takes on a mythic significance and resonates for a day or two after finishing the story. How much of a healthy relationship involves little self-deceptions; how much depends on covering up for your partner’s foibles; and, when does healthy coping cross the line into perverse weirdness (i.e., last paragraph).

    And, speaking of last paragraph, I’m just not sure what to make of it. Wasn’t the mother’s story essentially a nightmare? Was Bud crossing a line into the perverse pleasures one might find in embracing the nightmare-stranger rather than running from it? His impotence and passivity in accepting his partner’s lies start taking on new meaning…

    P.s., somehow, I also thought of “Bullet in the Brain,” which is really a very different sort of story, but I guess involves another character who distances themselves from reality through idiosyncratic intellectualizing.

    P.p.s., and, I find it interesting to compare “Bullet in the Brain” to “From a Farther Room”–I didn’t get past the second paragraph of “From a Farther Room” because I could tell I’d hate it right away after the long sentence describing all food consumed by main character. Yet, “Bullet in the Brain” shares something of the same “Graduate Seminar Writing Exercise” feel about it–it’s just that Tobias Wolff has the talent to pull it off and transcend the exercise, while I got a quick sense that David Gilbert doesn’t (but I’m willing to be proven wrong…)

  19. Ken July 27, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I enter late but I can concur that this is a terrific story, constantly surprising and requring the reader re-think their assumptions and positions (somewhat like the main character also does). I have a new question. Is it not possible that Arden is not going to come back at the end? I think it’s unlikely since being late is part of her personality and she probably has all her luggage and stuff still in the room plus she is a “respectable” woman with a good job. But, for some reason, the thought still lingered with me. The last paragraph is a masterful bit of ironic erotica.

  20. Jon July 28, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Ken….interesting.

    And “ironic erotica”—brilliant.

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