Minutiae Make 'Story'

It has been five years since Tobias Wolff’s last novel and over 10 years since his last collection of short stories. He has had time to hone, revise, even recreate his writing. So what’s new about the new stories in his latest book of short stories?

Frankly, not much.

Wolff was already a sophisticated writer a decade ago; his marginal improvement can only be that—marginal. His characters, his versatility, and—oh, God—his language are as mesmerizing as ever. But Wolff’s greatest strength is the way in which he ponders the complexity of contemporary issues through the subtlest and simplest instances of the everyday. In “Our Story Begins,” he extends this deceptive banality to an impressive breadth of fresh topics.

The collection features an array of gems. In “A White Bible”, a father kidnaps a high school teacher. In “The Deposition,” a lawyer follows an adolescent girl who has entranced him. In “Deep Kiss,” a middle-aged man recalls a girlfriend whom he treated badly. Wolff brushes the actual drama into the shadows. By drawing seemingly obscure details—turning on the heater in a car, a curl of hair on someone’s nape, a remembered lunch—into the foreground, he manages to imbue the characters with a real emotional accessibility.

Only two of the 11 new stories are letdowns. “That Room” comes right after Wolff’s old thriller “Bullet in the Brain” and sorely disappoints, precisely because it doesn’t have the subtle simplicity of the other. The latter is rhythmic and nuanced, focusing on the main character’s queer sense of humor rather than the gun-pulling action. In contrast, the new story is stuffed into kitschy, reductive binaries: life versus death, Hispanic versus white.

“Her Dog” isn’t a letdown because of its reductive symbolism and overt motifs, but because it’s just an inexplicable anomaly. A man walks his dead wife’s dog out of a sense of obligation. Nice notion—but the story quickly disintegrates into a hokey dialogue between the main character and the dog.

In his stories about the military, on the other hand, Wolff beautifully zeroes in on the minutiae of life—and as a result, they’re probably the best of the bunch. In “Awaiting Orders,” a sergeant meets the sister and son of one of his soldiers who has shipped out for Iraq. Although the sergeant is “no longer able to imagine himself as a civilian—the formlessness of that life, the endless petty choices to be made”—he begins to speculate about the value of family.

Without even the slightest political or philosophical twang, Wolff evokes the question of what war means on the homefront today. A hundred and fifty years ago, it meant visible, physical sacrifice: bandages rolled in the home, wounded laid out on the front porch, scorched fields and ransacked homes. In the last century it has meant ration coupons, war bonds, and nationwide campus riots. In today’s world, where days can go by without mention of war, Wolff asks, What happens to the people who are left behind?

In “Nightingale,” a father drops his son off at a military academy “for his own good.” As he drives away he becomes paranoid that the academy is not really a school but a huge con to kidnap and destroy young men. The story asks pertinent questions about the threatening allure of the military: the strength of character it builds despite the dominance of the institution over the individual. These questions are juxtaposed against the protagonist’s ephemeral awareness of the countryside—the color of the fields and the voice of a nightingale.

Besides their immediate relevance and their showcasing of some of Wolff’s most gorgeous imagery to date—the rain falling outside of the pancake house in “Awaiting Orders” is literally cathartic—these military stories are spectacular because they access the consequences of military involvement through personal relationships. War becomes diffused through a soldier’s attraction to a woman, a father remembering his son’s face.

This familiarity is what makes “Our Story Begins” such a delight. Wolff pares his stories down to the core of fiction. He understands that even the most charged issues must be rendered not on a soapbox or in a drama, but in the little things.

—Staff writer April B. Wang can be reached at abwang@fas.harvard.edu.