Journey to the human core in a Tobias Wolff collection
Two hundred years from now, historians hoping to understand what our nation was like in the early 21st century, how we lived and dreamed and worked and fought, will be well-served to excavate a copy of Tobias Wolff's collection Our Story Begins.
New and Selected Stories
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf. 400 pp. $26.95.
Reviewed by Andrew Ervin
Two hundred years from now, historians hoping to understand what our nation was like in the early 21st century, how we lived and dreamed and worked and fought, will be well-served to excavate a copy of Tobias Wolff's collection
Our Story Begins
Few authors today so accurately get at the heart of what makes us tick. Despite the beautiful exactitude of the prose, and the fluid turns of phrase that remind us how elastic the English language truly is, reading Wolff can be a little disconcerting - in a good way. In his fiction, Wolff fully exposes the good, bad, and ugly about what it means to be alive in this day and age.
The collection, subtitled
New and Selected Stories
, functions as a beginner's guide to understanding Tobias Wolff. But reading it also entails coming to understand more about yourself. In addition to 10 new stories, 21 chestnuts represent three decades of careful observation into the human condition.
Wolff dusted the cobwebs off a few of these: In a brief "Note From the Author," he defends his decision to edit some of these widely anthologized stories. "The truth is," he writes, "that I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts. To the extent that they are still alive to me, I take a continuing interest in giving that life its best expression." In delivering fiction that is both new and improved,
Our Story Begins
is certain to please new converts and longtime admirers alike.
Among the older stories, such as "Bullet in the Brain" and "Leviathan" and "The Night in Question," you'll find some of the most emotionally affecting fiction of our time. Without relying on pyrotechnics or gimmicks, Wolff writes seemingly simple sentences that burn slowly like a fuse affixed to a massive bomb. Sometimes, as in "The Rich Brother," the biggest explosions occur off the page, yet the repercussions hit hard.
"Hunters in the Snow," about three friends on an ill-fated trek, shows off the breadth of Wolff's range. The story is frightening and moving and at three or four points make you want to yell at the characters so they stop making such terrible decisions. These people - Tub and Kenny and Frank - are as fallible as we are. Like much of Wolff's best work, which is to say like much of the best contemporary fiction, it looks at how the secrets we keep make us who we are. If there's such a thing as a must-read story, "Hunters in the Snow" is it. I intend to assign it to my undergraduate creative-writing students this summer. They'll thank me some day.
The 20 new stories here make it amply clear that Wolff, who was born in 1945, isn't exactly mellowing with age. The charming "Her Dog" turns into a dialogue between Victor, an old hound "too creaky and cloudy-eyed to chase anything," and John, the man whose lot it is to walk him. Their mutual companion, Grace, has died. The man-vs.-dog argument about who was more loyal to her is both funny and pitiful.
Several of these tales feature soldiers trying to carve out some semblance of individuality amid the overwhelming pressure to conform. "Awaiting Orders" asks us to consider some of the less obvious repercussions of the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy, while "That Room" is about a weary father looking back, through the filter of a stint in Vietnam, at a childhood job as a farm hand.
Then there's Teresa in "A Mature Student," a 41-year-old former Marine "living alone for the first time in her life" and who "wasn't interested in anything more than some appreciative company and a chance to dress up a little." Every reader will identify in some way with these people - they're as real as you or me.
Wolff understands all too well what evils and what pleasures and, most of all, what disappointments lurk in our hearts. In these stories, he forces us to examine those parts of ourselves that we didn't know existed. Or, if we did know, we've almost certainly tried to suppress and ignore them.
It's impossible to read Tobias Wolff and not come away transformed.