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.
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.
“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.