Reviewed by Art Winslow
Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain" has remained lodged in mine for many years, not just because he kills a literary critic in it (with the puckish implication that what goes around comes around), but because it exhibits so cleanly what the best stories do: range outward from the confines of a tight literary space to evoke life with an illusion of capaciousness.
Anders, "a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed," is shot in the midst of a bank heist after laughing at one of the robbers. Wolff cleverly relates what the victim did not think in the final instant, as well as what he did.
So, we are told Anders "did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, 'I should have stabbed him in his sleep,' " or recall his own first love, Sherry, "or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him," nor his wife, "whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability"; neither did he recall a single line of the hundreds of poems he had memorized to "give himself the shivers at will," nor seeing a woman leap to her death from a building two days after his daughter's birth, nor "deliberately crashing his father's car into a tree," nor when it was that "everything began to remind him of something else."
Instead, the synaptic firing in Anders' brain evoked a pickup baseball game from his boyhood, and a friend's visiting cousin who said shortstop is "'the best position they is.'" Anders is "strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music," and he takes to the field and smacks his mitt, chanting, "They is, they is, they is."
Such linguistic music and unexpectedness, the they—we—who "is," sound off brightly in Wolff's Our Story Begins, a compendium of new and selected stories spanning 30 years of his work. Two-thirds of these, like "Bullet in the Brain," hail from earlier collections (half of 1985's Back in the World stories can be found here, and a larger share of entries from 1996's The Night in Question), while one-third of them are newly gathered. (Readers might recall, incidentally, recent controversy over the stories of Raymond Carver and how different his originals were from the edited versions that appeared in print. In an author's note, Wolff raises the question as it relates to his own work, asking, "What would the 'original form' of a story be?" Enumerating the possibilities of editorial alteration from drafts to magazine debuts to first collections to anthologized versions to paperback editions, he observes that his stories have remained alive to changes that may represent some aesthetic restlessness, but he has never regarded them as "sacred texts." The living story -- fine concept, isn't it?)
Wolff's settings in Our Story Begins include the groves of academe, military bases, prep schools, California, the Northwest, the Southwestern desert, Rome and, fleetingly, Africa. Whereas a staple of the short story in general is often a cathartic moment, Wolff's characters are more apt to experience self-puzzlement, endorse a dubious rationalization of their behavior, or simply pause in self-recognition in some mental cul-de-sac, unattended by that transformative emotional charge. This intensifies the true-to-life feel of character and situation; many of his people are, if not pessimists, readily aware of the ways life can break promise, and promises.
A good example of that is found in "Flyboys," among the more powerful of the older stories, in which boys contemplate building a full-scale jet plane. The narrator, describing that time in adolescence, was torn between friends: Freddy, from a downscale family, and Clark, from people "unsurprised by their luck," whose photo albums were full of relatives with "big spreads behind them, the boats and cars, and their relaxed, handsome families who, it was clear, did not get laid off, or come down with migraines, or lock each other out of the house."
Freddy's family had been traumatized by the death of his older brother, Tanker, in a motorcycle accident, after which the house "had the frozen, echoey quiet of abandonment." We are told by the narrator (who is never named) that the sorrow of Freddy's mother was more extreme than any he had witnessed, "And I was even more appalled by her attempts to overcome it, because they so plainly, pathetically failed, and in failing opened up the view of a world I had only begun to suspect, where wounds did not heal, and things did not work out for the best."
Related themes echo through Wolff's stories, where plaintive riffs abound. In "The Other Miller," a soldier is being sent home because of a death in the family (he knows it is over confusion with a GI bearing the same initials and surname, but is not about to pass up a free leave by informing the Army). As he watches two soldiers seek out a fortuneteller in a rusty trailer that bears a sign advising "Know Your Future," he muses:
"Didn't everybody know enough about the future already, without rooting around for the details? There's only one thing you have to know about the future: everything gets worse. Once you have that, you have it all. The specifics don't bear thinking about."
Another soldier, trying to talk down a distraught colleague who has a loaded rifle in the story "Soldier's Joy," concedes when asked that his best time was in Vietnam, although he did not know it:
"'[B]ack in the world we were going to do this and we were going to do that. Back in the world we were going to have it made. But ever since then it's been nothing but confusion.'"
And the cancers, the dying parents, the generational and romantic betrayals Wolff's people face? Confusions, all. Here's Joe, the main character in the terrific new story "Deep Kiss," which closes out the collection, as he is forced by his mother to speak with his terminally ill father:
"He listened to the weird submarine clankings emanating from his father's oxygen tank and studied the pattern in the rug and answered a few wheezy questions about his schoolwork and then he got the hell out of there, but not before his father put his dry yellow hand on Joe's wrist and pulled him down into an embrace that left him sick with horror."
And here's the reverie in "Desert Breakdown, 1968" of Mark, who is contemplating abandoning his young wife and child and achieving stardom in the Las Vegas club scene, but not without a parting shot to his parents, Dutch and Dottie. He would call them up to the stage and hold their hands in the air, introducing them to the audience:
"'It's impossible to tell you what they did for me,' he would say, pausing for effect, 'because they didn't do anything for me. They didn't do squat.' Then he would drop their hands and jump off the stage, leaving them there."
The petty resentments that can channel deep in life are all here, but so is the striving for good, unsentimentally delivered. An attorney in search of a sworn statement in "The Deposition" (another of the new stories) is a believer in one's "natural inclination toward the truth. It was like a homing instinct in those who had it." In "The Benefit of the Doubt," a man finds that during his 11-year-old daughter's treatment for a brain tumor "he had become intensely conscious of life as something good in itself, his own as well as hers. This took the form of patience rather than cheer or even hope."
In the story that opens this collection, an old standby, "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," an academic on a hopeless job search is handed a speech to deliver but to the chagrin of her hosts spouts one of her own, including her invented dying speech of the (real historical) missionary martyr Jean de Brebeuf, who tells the Iroquois who are killing him:
"'Mend your lives....Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.' "
Those who have read Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life, which includes a temporary nomadic period with his divorced mother, or his novel Old School may find some echoes in these stories, but overall the short fiction is more venturous and spirited. Wolff consistently finds ways to slip beyond the unfolding of events in a narrative sense, making his stories something of a chrysalis from which emerges something non-narrative -- call it heart. He reveals much in dialogue rather than exposition, and deals out detail slowly. In "Hunters in the Snow," in which three men are out to bag a deer, one known as Tub asks, "'What did Kenny mean about the babysitter?'" and is told, "'Kenny talks too much,'" by Frank. Later we learn that Frank is in love and is considering leaving his wife for a teenager, convinced that "this so-called sixteen-year-old, has more in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies."
Occasionally, entries in Our Story Begins will tail toward an O. Henry-style ending, but Wolff is strongest when exercising his habit of skewing away from formal resolutions, into what we might term the continuous ambiguous. At the end of the collection, a man has just cut the engine on a lawn mower he has been pushing. He hears music -- a Strauss piece, he knows, but he can't name it. A dog barks, and the strains of yet another waltz start up.
Art Winslow is a frequent contributor to the Tribune.
Books mentioned in this post