Reviewed by Elaine P. Chiew
The characters in Tobias Wolff's stories fall short of their own moral measure. There is the father in Desert Breakdown 1968 who abandons his pregnant wife and small child at a gas-stop in the middle of the desert en route to L.A., enticed by solitary dreams of being in entertainment. There's the deadbeat journalist writing obituaries in Mortal who never bothered to confirm any of the deaths he wrote about. There's the wealthy man (Rich Brother) chafing under his obligation to take care of his poorer sibling and almost severing blood-ties over a hundred dollars. These characters aren't lofty, or necessarily good, but seem to grapple with their conscience like subtle knife-edges. The moral Sword-of-Damocles dangles, and falls as silent as a pin.
When I thought about how to write a review of a Wolff collection without turning it into a soppy paean of the man's work and story-telling ability, I feared I would scarcely do him justice. But if there's any one epigram I would coin to describe Wolff's stories, it's this: It's all about character. His characters are unstable, more often liars, thieves, killers, frauds who mask themselves with kind acts. A boy in The Liar lies unabashedly, irrepressibly as his father lay dying, and in an act of kindness, lied to his mother that he died in his bed when in fact, he died sitting on a chair. He made the fiction true by enlisting his friend's help to carry his father's body upstairs. When his mother came home to discover his father dead, she said, "Thank God, at least he died in bed." As if the boy had instinctively, prematurely, known it was important to her. As if he lied to spare the truth its brutality.
Wolff's newer stories in the collection continue to be taken up with the nature of fiction in life – a lawyer visiting a moribund town to take a key witness deposition stalks a young, beautiful girl to the point of terror, and when confronted, he lies. The girl's mother slaps him, and this relieves him of the terrible burden of himself. (Deposition). Indeed, the story the quote is taken from concerns a father who enrolls his son into a strict, regimented military academy because of his son's perceived laziness, lassitude and dreamy ramblings (Nightingale), and only when he gets horribly lost driving back does he admit he's been lying to himself all along his real reason for enlisting his son.
One of my all-time favorite short stories is in this collection – The Other Miller. Here, a soldier at training camp receives news that his mother has died. While being transported back to base, he spins a story about his mother's desertion to his companions and puts on a sad face like a fraud. The truth is far grimier – he joined the army to punish his mother for marrying his biology teacher, a man he didn't respect. As the three stop off to grab a bite, the other two decide to visit a gypsy woman who foretells the future. Miller refuses and returns to the truck, where his seething thoughts gradually turn on him, telling him point-blank the simple truth that coats his life – that he has acted to remove himself far from his mother's reach, where even her death can't reach him. We act to alienate ourselves from those we love with very little provocation.
For all the writhing canvas of human frailty and flaws Wolff tackles, his characters are also simple, mundane. They are soldiers, husbands, neighbors, teachers, young men on the cusp of mature adolescence. Very ordinary people. His landscape rarely ventures beyond the American continent (except once to Rome in The Benefit of the Doubt), all the more amazing that although the slice of humanity Wolff chooses to illuminate is internal, minute and often obscured, these stories are ambitious and broad in their explorations into the questions of private integrity.
They are also deeply American, but in its humanity, universally resonant. Perhaps because we read his stories and feel as if we're looking into a mirror and seeing ourselves. The festering rottenness in his characters' moral calibrations, the rumbling discontent and brokenness that flames out of Wolff's precise unadorned prose and straight classic narratives can be easily glossed over on first read, because Wolff's craft-style is so unassuming. But there is nothing unassuming about the small truths Wolff shows us. In Awaiting Orders, one of many stories of Wolff's to appear in The New Yorker, Morse, a gay soldier, attempts to extend kindness in the form of doled-out charity to a fellow-soldier's sister, who is penniless and taking care the fellow soldier's son. She takes pleasure at turning him down out of pride. But kindness too is a form of masking one's own lies. A fiction perpetrated to avoid putting out real kindness. Morse realizes this when he understands the woman will willingly accept his hospitality rather than charity, but inviting her to his home will expose his own uncomfortable liaisons with a fellow officer, an act that might jeopardize his career and ultimately, cuts too close to home.
Even in one of Wolff's stranger, more surreal stories, Her Dog, the same regret and brokenness causes a man to talk to his wife's dog in his mind, chastising himself for not loving his wife enough. In these newer stories, Wolff seems more attentive towards including foreign characters in his stories – the Muslim father in A White Bible, the Polish professor in A Mature Student, the Viennese woman in Down to Bone, and here, the speech cadences of these characters seem more labored, more stilted, as if they are props, but the centrality of the moral drama wielded by Wolff never wavers.
Where, one may legitimately ask, as Wolff probably intends for us to ask, do all the brokenness and moral shortfall lead? A sort of uneasy existence as in The Benefit of the Doubt, a suspension of feeling as in Awaiting Orders, a waiting for the shoe to drop in Down to Bone, as a son waits for his mother to die? All that, maybe. And maybe, ultimately, on the road to forgiveness. "Others might forgive you – he knew his father would – but how do you forgive yourself?" Joe asks himself in Deep Kiss, the last story in this collection, as he mourns the accidental death of a woman he once loved to obsession in his teens. "You don't, really. Yet one day the weight is lighter, and lighter still, and then you barely know it's there, if it's there at all."
Read an excerpt one of the stories from this collection on RandomHouse.com.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: 2008
First collection?: Yes
Awards: Winner, The 2008 Story Prize
Author bio: Born in Alabama in 1945, Tobias Wolff spent four years as a paratrooper. He is currently Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the Humanities at Stanford. Tobias Wolff’s books include the memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army; the short novel The Barracks Thief; three collections of stories, In The Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Night in Question; and, most recently, the novel Old School. His work has received numerous awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Rea Award for Excellence in the Short Story, the Fairfax Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, the PEN/Malamud Award for Achievement in the Short Story, and the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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