Free fall

Tobias Wolff's ingenious stories travel far beyond their ending

Tobias Wolff , shown above in 1994, was described by The Los Angeles Times as 'part storyteller, part philosopher.' Tobias Wolff , shown above in 1994, was described by The Los Angeles Times as "part storyteller, part philosopher." (Associated Press/Luc Novovich)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Eder
March 30, 2008

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf, 379 pp., $26.95

In choosing 21 stories from his three collections along with 10 published since, Tobias Wolff tells us that he felt free to improve them. It is unusual among writers and artists, who generally hold to the notion of the finished work. It's not unknown, though; Henry James adjusted his novels for the New York edition, and J.M.W. Turner would continue to daub at his paintings even after they were hung.

What is more interesting is the argument Wolff makes. "To the extent that they are still alive to me," he writes of these stories, "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."

To the reader, he means; but you get the sense of a continuing duty not so much to the stories as to their lives, much as a mother feels obliged to nurture the baby once born. It is more than just a conceit; the special quality of Wolff's best pieces is that their endings do not close but launch them, free them to take a different direction, begin them someplace else.

Wolff is one of America's short-story masters, perhaps the closest we have to the Anglo-Irish William Trevor. His characters lack the powerfully quiet complexity of Trevor's; they require more in the way of arranged dramatic incident to instigate their breathtaking emotional progressions. (Trevor's blade can barely seem to move as it draws heart's blood.)

Any collection, even when it is a selection, will contain some weaker work. Wolff's stories are traps: some for the irony of event, others (the best, I think) for the unexpected footfalls of the spirit. All but a few are ingenious to the point where ingenuity can certainly be its own reward. The difference is that several entrap little more than mice; most snare a larger, more vital, and hotly struggling beast, while a half-dozen catch snow leopards.

Some stories touch on themes or settings in Wolff's longer works. In the beautiful "Powder," a boy's unstable father, "rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty," drives him at breakneck speed through powder snow to get him home on time to his angry mother. The scene recalls one in Wolff's first memoir, "This Boy's Life": The son, scared and indignant, begins to learn himself of the recklessness that is part of growing into a man.

"Soldier's Joy," mordant and melancholy at the same time (Wolff makes luminous syntheses out of contradictory emotions), takes up the theme of his follow-up memoir, "In Pharaoh's Army": the insanity of Army life when it is not engaged in its dreadful purpose of war - in this case the Vietnam War.

There is no space here to set out the full bestiary of Wolff's captures. There is comedy as a condiment of grief in "Her Dog": a widower pleads guilty to neglecting his dead wife in a dialogue with her reproachful pet. The grasshopper-and-ant theme of "The Rich Brother" - a successful businessman patiently (impatiently) provides endless help to his ne'er-do-well younger brother - is suddenly reversed with the disclosure of the former's near-fratricidal act when they were children.

Like Trevor, Wolff can summon up a phrase that transfixes and transforms. The cautious woman academic of "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" keeps her real thoughts to herself, "and the words for them grew faint as time went on; without quite disappearing they shrank to remote nervous points, like birds flying away."

In "The Liar," a heroic but comically overbearing mother marches bent forward, "her feet hurrying behind in short, busy steps." It is, furthermore, one of the snow leopard stories. The son, stretched between his hyperactive mother and reflective, dying father, devises lies - tall tales, perhaps - to weave a kingdom of his own.

Sent off by bus to stay with an uncle, he tells a neighboring passenger of his childhood in Tibet. The bus breaks down, the boy sings in made-up Tibetan. And here the story begins to lift out of an ending into something more magical.

"They bent toward me. The windows were blind with rain. The driver had fallen asleep and was snoring gently to the swaying of the bus. Outside the muddy light flickered to pale yellow, and far off there was thunder. The woman next to me leaned back and closed her eyes and then so did all the others as I sang to them in what was surely an ancient and holy tongue."

Another lie, no doubt, this last bit. But Wolff has evoked a borderland where the lie transmutes into art. An art, here and in some of the other stories - "Desert Breakdown, 1968," "The Night in Question" - where his snow leopards, splendid in the traps, are freed to wander unpredictably through our imagination.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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