When it comes to mapping the calibrations of the human heart, no writer working today is as exacting a cartographer as Tobias Wolff. Bucking the modernist tide, Wolff writes shapely short stories with structural integrity about ordinary people with desperation haunting their souls. No meditative drift or open-ended conclusions for this writer; he’s an old-fashioned storyteller in the best sense of that word.
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Who's afraid of Tobias Wolff stories?
As amply demonstrated in Our Story Begins, a brilliant collection of his work over the past 26 years, Wolff’s genius comes in grappling with big themes within a modest narrative framework. In Wolff’s most searing work, his characters are beaten down by adulthood and all of its attendant disappointments, scratching and clawing for redemption that never comes. Often in Wolff’s stories, there’s a moment when the memories of an idealized past — or at least an idea of how one’s life might have played out given a different set of circumstances — clash with the soul-crushing drudgery of the present. It’s never a pretty sight. But Wolff obviously has affection for these characters. He’s a writer of great empathy and tenderness.
This anthology reads like the greatest hits of a fiction rock star. With the 1981 publication of his first book, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Wolff gave notice to the masters of the short-story form. Subsequent collections have only found Wolff going deeper into his art, finding new ways of confusing, and occasionally abetting, his characters’ search for self-worth and meaning.
Men have it the worst in Wolff’s universe, and for the most part, it’s their own damn fault. Many of his male protagonists have deluded notions of how they’re supposed to behave with other men, and it’s usually because they have to adhere to some Hemingway-like masculine code that they can never quite live up to.
In “Hunters in the Snow,” three friends embark on a hunting trip deep in the snowdrifts of some rural outpost. They spot a prime piece of meat, a majestic deer that wanders off beyond the legal hunting territory, yet go after it anyway. When things get testy, one friend shoots another in the midsection, just for the fuck of it. The victim is thrown into the truck and becomes just another bagged animal, slowly bleeding to death in the truck while his pals drink beer in a nearby bar. Here is Wolff at his most brutally Darwinian: The weakest of the species are left to rot in the cold, while the strong survive on lager and braggadocio.
But it’s not just firearms that do the damage in Our Story Begins. “The Rich Brother” reminds us that when it comes to severing the male bond, money is far worse than ammo. Doug is a struggling scraper, lost and then born again in a fit of righteous frenzy, while his brother Pete has made a fortune in real estate and is thus a financial crutch for Doug to lean on. When Pete retrieves his brother from a communal farm whose members have expelled Doug, the two engage in a power struggle between blood and blood money.
Family ties hang together tenuously in Wolff’s stories, as self-interest always trumps togetherness. The nuclear family doesn’t stand a chance against the needs of characters that greedily grasp at slender threads of salvation wherever they can find it. In “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” Mark and Krystal, a couple of hippie exiles, road-trip it from Ohio to L.A. with their small baby in tow in search of Hollywood riches. The car breaks down in the middle of the desert, and soon the couple is unmoored and torn apart by the lure of individual freedom.
“Mark felt that he had been deceived,” Wolff writes. “The truth was, when you got married you had to give up one thing after another. It never ended. You had to give up your life — the special one you’d meant to have — and stumble along where neither of you had ever thought of going or wanted to go.”
Often, what grates at Wolff’s characters is a gnawing sense of insufficiency, of having been too careful or too safe with their life choices, until the ticket to adulthood has been punched and it’s too late to change things. In “Leviathan,” Helen, feeling sorry for herself on the precipice of turning 30, bemoans the fact that “we’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. I just wish I’d done more of them. I wish I’d raised more hell and made more mistakes, real mistakes, where you actually do something wrong instead of just let yourself drift into things you don’t like.” A kind of reverse moralism is at work here; perhaps, Wolff insinuates, it’s the straight-and-narrow path that leads us into a personal hell.
If regret over life choices hangs over these stories like a toxic cloud, so does a twisted sort of joy. In the remarkable “Bullet in the Brain,” a bored book reviewer, Anders, finds himself in the middle of a bank heist. He can’t stop critiquing, however, and the bank robber’s sub-Cagney dialogue is too much for him: “The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes,” Anders sneers. Annoyed by the critic’s big mouth, the robber summarily shoots Anders in the head: “After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared with the synaptic lightning that flashed around it.”
Anders’ life movie flashes back to a moment when his language didn’t oppress him, but amazed him. It was a pickup baseball game of his youth, when a kid mentioned that shortstop is “the best position they is.” Anders was “strangely roused” by those words, “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” Now, in the final breath, he is comforted by those words: “They is, they is, they is.” “Bullet in the Brain” is chilling and strangely moving at once, a bravura display of Wolff’s gift for interiority.
But this is only skimming the surface; there is so much to admire in Our Story Begins. It is the one book of fiction this spring that one should read in order to understand the versatility and power of the short story.
OUR STORY BEGINS: New and Selected Stories | By TOBIAS WOLFF | Knopf | 379 pages | $26.95 hardcover