- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

OUR STORY BEGINS

By Tobias Wolff

Knopf, $26.95, 400 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

It’s been over a decade since Tobias Wolff brought out a collection of short stories, but based on the evidence at hand it was well worth the wait. An acknowledged master of the form, Mr. Wolff has also written two very well-received memoirs, “This Boy’s Life” and “In Pharaoh’s Army,” as well as a novella (but never a novel). “Our Story Begins,” - nice title, eh? - is a collection of 21 “selected” stories and 10 new ones, which not only serves as a kind of Portable Wolff but also makes it easy to compare the new with the old. While died-in-the-Wolff fans may find they prefer such earlier well-known stories as “In The Garden of the North American Martyrs,” “Soldier’s Joy,” or “The Night in Question,” they’ll still find much to enjoy in the new offerings.

As usual with Mr. Wolff, if the readers want to understand and enjoy these stories, they’ll have to keep up their end of what the author has always considered a fair bargain: “The reader really has to step up to the plate and read a short story,” Mr. Wolff wrote years ago, by which he meant that working through the difficulty of the short story is in fact its own reward. As for the writer, his or her thrill comes from “working a miracle, making life where there was none” in the space of just a few pages. “There’s a joy in writing short stories,” he says, “a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.” I won’t go so far as to call Tobias Wolff a miracle worker, but I will vouch for the presence of any number of rewards.

A warning: The earlier stories may not be exactly the same as they were when they first saw the light of print. While some purists may howl at so much as a change in punctuation, Tobias Wolff eschews such a foolish consistency: “The truth is 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. This satisfies a certain aesthetic restlessness, but I also consider it a form of courtesy. If I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented? Where I have felt the need for something better I have answered the need as best I can, for now.” So be it.

In the first half dozen or so stories, the reader’s job is to understand that what you see is not at all what you get, and when someone seems intent on helping someone else - as in “Hunters in The Snow” or “The Liars” - it is really themselves they want to save, consciously or otherwise. In the very powerful “Soldier’s Joy,” written in 1996, and first printed in the collection “Back in the World,” by which Vietnam vets, like Wolff, meant home in America with all of the attendant, now familiar-sounding difficulties, three soldiers try to readjust.

In “The Rich Brother,” we meet the highly-successful older brother Pete, and his sappy sibling Donald who can’t seem to do or get anything right. Pete is continually rescuing Donald, propping him up, keeping him from falling through the cracks. Finally, fed up, he pushes him out of the car and leaves him on the side of the road, to which Donald says he doesn’t blame Pete, and then adds, “God bless you.” Infuriated, Pete drives on ” but not for long. The Christian symbolism may be a bit heavy, but it works. Very effective short story.

Some of the older stories - I’m thinking of the longish “Two Boys and a Girl” and the quite short “Bullet in the Brain” - push the envelope of credulity a bit too much for me (or maybe I just didn’t like what he decided to do to, as opposed to with, his main characters), but it’s fascinating watching him get there. Wolff has said on many occasions that he’s a liar who enjoys lying, which, along with his proclivity for change keeps the reader alert, or should. But the man definitely keeps his end of the writer-reader bargain.

As for the new stories, each one has something to offer, something that’s both typically Wolffian and yet different. I’ve long admired Tobias Wolff’s skill at opening sentences, but in this collection I found myself marveling at how well he can turn the barely-begun narrative onto a new and unexpected path. For example, “That Room” opens with “The summer after my first year of high school, I got a case of independence and started hitchhiking to farms up and down the valley for day work picking berries and mucking out stalls.” You’d think a string of narrative anecdotes would follow, but instead, he writes, “Then I found a place where the farmer paid me ten cants an hour over minimum wage, and his plump, childless wife fed me lunch and fussed over me while I ate, so I stayed on there until school started.” Now that’s the beginning of a story.

And here are the first two sentences of “Down to Bone”: “He had an appointment at a funeral home and was itching to leave. His mother was dying, her in her own bed, as she had wished, with him in attendance.” And those of “The Benefit of the Doubt”: “The number 64 bus stops at St. Peter’s, so it’s always crammed with pilgrims or suckers, depending on your point of view. Mallon was not a pilgrim, or by his own reckoning a sucker.” In feature journalism, we’d call these grabbers.

“Deep Kiss,” the last story, is one of the very best. In it, we meet Joe Reed, who is fifteen when he falls for Mary Claude and 45 when he learns of her death. During all those years, he never saw her again, and never stopped dreaming of her. It’s a powerful story, one in which the mature author looks back on his own memories (Wolff has always admitted to writing autobiographically) and then brings them up to date. It contains some of the nicest writing in the collection.

It’s wonderful to see that Tobias Wolff has not lost his touch, not lost his ability to pull things off, not lost his ability to make life where there was none. Bravo.

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