In Western culture, the dominant forms of fictional narrative have been the novel, the stage play and the motion picture. Nonetheless, the short story, traditionally a literary stepsister to the novel, has in recent years grown in popularity and prestige to the point that it has begun to demand equal status with its siblings. What makes an author gravitate toward one narrative medium rather than another—or periodically to switch back and forth? Whereas some conclude this is an unanswerable question, the master raconteur Tobias Wolff declares that the choice is not his: It is the medium that selects him. “There’s a strange, somewhat irrational and uncontrollable element to writing.”
Although he has written two novels and a novella, Tobias Wolff, the recipient of a plethora of awards, is best known for his short stories and his memoirs. He readily admits that in his case, the line of distinction between these two genres is blurred in that everything he has written is, in one way or another, autobiographical: Most of his fiction was constructed from reworked recollections, while the accounts of his personal history are embellished or edited. “I wouldn’t ever,” he once remarked, “want to be held to a literal version of the facts.” His ambition is to reach the truth through memory and transform it into art.
Tobias Wolff was born in Alabama in 1945. After his parents divorced, his older brother, the accomplished novelist Geoffrey Wolff, was brought up by their father, mostly on the east coast, while Tobias, still a small child, traveled with their mother, who relocated frequently, finally settling near Seattle, where she remarried. This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, a deeply disturbing book that was made into a film starring Robert DeNiro, Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio, recounts, in part, the author’s troubled relationship with his abusive stepfather. (Geoffrey also wrote about his childhood, in The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father.) The two brothers were reunited when Tobias was a teenager.
The memoir In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War deals with Tobias’s experiences and maturation in Vietnam, where he served as a lieutenant in the Special Forces. After his military service, he studied at Oxford and then at Stanford University, where he is currently teaching literature and creative writing. Joining a host of others, he acknowledges that creative writing is a mysterious art that cannot be taught; his goal, he explains, is to have his students learn to become “the best possible editors of their own work.” In literary circles, he is revered as a teacher as well as a writer. The editor of various anthologies, his work—clearly influenced by the likes of Raymond Carver, Hemingway and Chekhov—has appeared in prestigious magazines and journals on both sides of the Atlantic, with many of his stories reappearing in a number of anthologies of prize-winning fiction.
Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, Tobias Wolff’s fourth and latest collection—the first in over a decade—consists of 10 new tales accompanied by 21 classics. The author breaks with tradition by not using the title of one of the stories for the the title of the collection. “Our Story Begins” is the title of a story from a previous collection. His intent is to highlight its salience. “Our Story Begins” is, to a large extent, a reflection on the art of writing and the nature of realistic short fiction in particular; it is as well an illumination of much of Wolff’s canon. Though some of his stories are traditional—plot-driven with a beginning, middle and end—and others are parables, he is for the most part a practitioner of the modern short-story form, which eschews background exposition in favor of character development within a believable setting. There is no plot to speak of and no sense of closure. Almost invariably he leaves the fate of his characters to the reader’s imagination. Even so, Wolff cannot be pigeonholed. “Hunters in the Snow,” for example, an examination of the dynamics of friendship, starts out realistically but ends in a surreal and tragicomic way.
The author’s focus is on the human concerns of his characters, which he develops swiftly and vividly. These concerns are largely fashioned by Wolff’s Catholicism. On some of his most powerful stories, there is a kind of Catholic veneer: the use of liturgical terms, prayers, references to religious societies and rituals. Like Flannery O’Connor, he is forthcoming about the significance of morality and the life of the spirit in literature. Each story is constructed, he maintains, on “some intuition of moral worth or spiritual insight”—what Graham Greene called “the religious sense.”
An indictment of the cruelties and injustices inherent in the world of academia, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” ends with Mary—who has been treated unfairly by the faculty and the administration of a small college—telling a confused assembly of students and professors about the sufferings and deaths of the Jesuit priests Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lallement at the hands of the Iroquois. A victim of psychological torment, she sermonizes: “Turn from power to love.... Walk humbly.” A certain gentle humor reverberates throughout much of Wolff’s fiction. “The Liar,” moving beyond the restraints of realism, is a humorous account of a young boy’s epiphany and redemption—following his recollection of his mother singing “O Magnum Mysterium,” praying with easy confidence. In “A White Bible,” a Muslim chastises a teacher at Saint Ignatius High School for her callous and cavalier references to the Almighty, warning her that “Without God there is no foundation. Without God we stand on nothing.”
Some of the stories display biblical resonance and inter-textual references: “The Rich Brother,” a contemporary parable, is reminiscent of Cain’s conversation with his creator. In “The Night in Question,” which echoes Francis Thompson’s poem, Frank makes an eloquent act of faith in the eternal presence of a loving God. “Leviathan”—the title an allusion to the Book of Job—reveals the restlessness, the longing that Helen once had to give herself to God but which she has submerged; leading a meaningless, superficial life, she anaesthetizes her frustration and unhappiness with cocaine, lamenting the “watered down” Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council. The protagonist of “A Mature Student,” fearful of what might happen to her son in Iraq, is comforted by Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”: “It was Mary’s expression that held her—accepting...as if she already knew what was to befall her child in this world.”
Many of the tales resonate with the theme of duty and responsibility. In “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” Mark considers abandoning his pregnant wife and child for the possibility of a more glamorous career in entertainment. The “rich brother” goes back for the simple, foolish sibling he has left by the side of the road in the dark, because he knows that his wife, upon his return, will ask him the question God put to Cain. And the protagonist of “Down to Bone,” after “long hours of useless witness to his mother’s dying,” and impatient for the end, is shamed into comforting her in her final moments.
One of the finest storytellers of our time, Tobias Wolff is a relentless reviser; he cannot reread his work without making changes: a word, a comma, perhaps an entire passage. In “A Note from the Author,” he offers the reader a caveat: A story that made its debut in a periodical may not be exactly the same one that appeared later in a collection. And if the story was chosen for an anthology, as many if not most of the tales in Our Story Begins were, he gave it yet another “going-over” and will do so again before this collection goes into paperback—which may not be the definitive version, as there is always the possibility of another edition.
This “revisiting” of his work presents an interesting if not problematic conundrum for scholars. So be it. An artist is at work here, and his meditations on existence, which is what his stories are at every stage of their evolution, constitute a major contribution to literature.