Thursday, May 19, 2011
Short Story Month: Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories
Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Tobias Wolff's collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, published by Knopf (March 2008). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 7:2, Fall 2008.
Review by Annie Tully
For aficionados of the short story--in particular the American short story of the last 50 years--Tobias Wolff's mustachioed face is surely carved into an imaginary Mount Rushmore of short fiction masters, along with Raymond Carver and perhaps Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, or Annie Proulx. (If there's room for T. C. Boyle, Stephen Dixon, Jayne Anne Phillips, and many others, it might have to be a rather large memorial for an art form so distinctly American.) Wolff is indeed an American master of the form, and his skill is again on display in a hefty collection of work, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, a collection of 21 older stories and ten more recent, all ripe with Wolff's trademarks--characters at self-imposed crossroads, clear and direct prose, settings of small towns, apartment buildings, army barracks, and leafy universities. For those unfamiliar with Wolff or familiar only with his memoirs (This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army were enormous hits) or an occasional story from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, this book delivers a good dose of what its storyteller is capable of doing. It's a cohesive gathering of tales with common threads and a distinct style running clear throughout.
The most common trait of that style is Wolff's fascination with very commonplace occurrences and the minute decisions and thoughts that happen to his everyman characters. The protagonists here range from academics to soldiers to adolescent boys, and the events in which Wolff situates them display the same variety. Yet what seems to fascinate Wolff as a writer--and will fascinate his readers as well upon reading this collection--is the way in which a character's smallest action, memory, or train of thought will wrap around a less significant plot line as if it's the grandest revelation of all time. And for his characters, many of whom are at turning points in their lives, these small moments are that enormous.
. . .
There is a sleepy introspection common to all Wolff's protagonists. Whether an unhappy wife or a middle-aged man who learns of the death of his first love, Wolff's characters often live fully inside their minds in order to take themselves out of what is happening around them. We see this in the young man in "The Liar," who tells extraordinary, unprovoked tales after the death of his father, and whose mother tells him, "You don't have to make all these things up, James. They'll happen anyway." We see it again with a young boy in "Flyboys," when he describes sneaking into his friend's family study to look at family photos, a ritual of sorts. "You could see it in the pictures that they took it all in stride, the 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. I pondered each picture as if it were a door I might enter."
Fibbers and storytellers populate Wolff's world, characters who must lie to carry on with living. In "The Other Miller," a soldier who has enlisted only to upset his mother talks about her to a fellow soldier: "'It's just that I didn't know her all that well,' Miller says and after this monstrous lie a feeling of weightlessness comes over him." Due either to boredom, self-loathing, or unhappiness with how their lives are going or have turned out, Wolff's characters dream.
This is not to say that Wolff's plots are lacking. There is wonderful variety to the events of these stories and each tale is told with a craftsman's fine touch. Yet plot takes a back seat to character and thought. And underneath each plot, no matter how commonplace or eventful and no matter what the outcome, the hearts of his stories reveal a depth and an empathy that are joyous. If we don't get around to carving Wolff's face into a mountain, at least we have this collection to cherish.
Annie Tully creates public programs in literature and the arts in Chicago. She has written reviews for Booklist, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Bookslut.com.