Straight into a shortlist of one for best book of the year and worst cover design of the decade is Tobias Wolff’s volume of new and selected stories, Our Story Begins. (Seriously, what is it with that cover? To give an already under-read writer like Wolff such an offputting design reminds me a little of the Lee and Herring joke about a poorly-rated TV show, which was “so popular they had to keep moving it around in the schedules to give other programmes a chance.”) If you believe me about the book of the year thing – and I mean it – and are new to Wolff, then it may well be that on completing this volume you will feel the urge to read everything Wolff has written. With many authors – I’m experiencing it with Philip Roth – this is a task as daunting as it is exciting. Wolff, ‘fortunately’, has kept his output down: in 63 years he’s published one novel, two memoirs and three collections of stories. All are essential; but some (Old School; This Boy’s Life) are more essential than others.
Of course if you read this edition, you’ll have a good range of Wolff’s story output anyway, but I recommend the full collections to fill the gaps. Our Story Begins is heavily weighted in favour of his later work, with only nine stories from his first two collections, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World (in the UK these are published in one volume, as The Stories of Tobias Wolff). Fortunately it includes one of his most famous stories, ‘Hunters in the Snow’, which exhibits the best of early Wolff in 16 pages:
Frank reached out and laid his hand on Tub’s arm. “Tub, have you ever been really in love?”
“I mean really in love.” He squeezed Tub’s wrist. “With your whole being.”
“I don’t know. When you put it like that, I don’t know.”
“You haven’t then. Nothing against you, but you’d know it if you had.” Frank let go of Tub’s arm. “This isn’t just some bit of fluff I’m talking about.”
“Who is she, Frank?”
Frank paused. He looked into his empty cup. “Roxanne Brewer.”
“Cliff Brewer’s kid? The babysitter?”
“You can’t just put people into categories like that, Tub. That’s why the whole system is wrong. And that’s why this country is going to hell in a rowboat.”
“But she can’t be more than -” Tub shook his head.
“Fifteen. She’ll be sixteen in May.” Frank smiled. “May fourth, three twenty-seven p.m. Hell, Tub, a hundred years ago she’d have been an old maid by that age. Juliet was only thirteen.”
“Juliet? Juliet Miller? Jesus, Frank, she doesn’t even have breasts. She doesn’t even wear a top to her bathing suit. She’s still collecting frogs.”
“Not Juliet Miller. The real Juliet. Tub, don’t you realise how you’re dividing people up into categories? He’s an executive, she’s a secretary, he’s a truck driver, she’s fifteen years old. Tub, this so-called babysitter, this so-called fifteen-year-old has more in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. I can tell you this little lady is something special.”
Tub nodded. “I know the kids like her.”
This is Wolff at his showiest, able and unashamed to entertain with diverting oddities and clever dialogue several times a page. Most of his stories are told in the third person, which enables Wolff to act as omniscient narrator and put in witticisms (a college which “looked so much like a college that moviemakers sometimes used it as a set”) and insights which wouldn’t necessarily occur to his everyman characters. This could be a weakness if Wolff’s integrity toward his creations weren’t so complete, and the people in his stories so full-blooded. He can sum up elements of their characters with exceptional economy, as in the passage above, where Frank’s knowledge of the very time of day when Roxanne Brewer turns 16 expresses him both as a parental figure and a plan-ahead predator. In another story, ‘Soldier’s Joy’, we get a twinge of pity, a cringe of embarrassment and a smile when we learn of the character Hooper that “he was no great lover, as the women he went with usually got around to telling him.”
Soldiers feature regularly in Wolff’s stories, as do boys from broken homes: Wolff has recorded his own experiences of these situations in This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994). His soldiers are usually in the army by necessity; his fatherless boys feel ambivalence toward their struggling mothers. The two lives are combined in ‘The Other Miller’ when a soldier has a stroke of luck (of one sort or another) and is sent on home leave for bereavement: “Miller knows what happened. There’s another Miller in the battalion with the same initials he’s got, “W.P.,” and this Miller is the one whose mother has died. The army screws up their mail all the time, and now they’ve screwed this up.” This Miller, anyway, isn’t on speaking terms with his mother, as he “wants her to understand that her son is not a man to turn the other cheek” after she remarried, to Miller’s high school biology teacher. Miller joined the army to spite her: “she was right too. The army was just as bad as she thought, and worse. … Miller hated every minute of it, but there was a pleasure in his hatred because his mother must know how unhappy he was.” In a dozen pages, Wolff tracks through this rather eccentric scenario to close in beautifully on the truth at the heart of it.
Miller leans back against the seat and closes his eyes, but his effort to trick himself into somnolence fails; behind his eyelids he is wide awake and fidgety with gloom, probing against his will for what he is afraid to find, until, with no surprise at all, he finds it. A simple truth. His mother is also going to die. Just like him. And there’s no telling when. Miller cannot count on her to be there to come home to, and receive his pardon, when he finally decides she has suffered enough.
This ability to extract piercing honesty from outlandish, attention-catching settings is a speciality of Wolff’s: in ‘Mortals’, where a man complains that his obituary has been published when he’s not dead yet; or in the new story ‘Her Dog’, where Wolff risks extreme silliness by having a man imagine a conversation with his dog – with her dog – but gets to the heart of a relationship in a way that standard issue knockabout stuff between man and woman would struggle to. Elsewhere, the first new story, ‘That Room’ is only four pages long but has a stretch of prose near the end which takes off in an entirely unexpected direction, rather rich and strange, which seems unlike anything Wolff has done before. He seems to be stretching himself.
As with any selection of stories, there will be quibbles for every reader familiar with Wolff. (Readers new to him will be delighted by an embarrassment of riches.) For my part, given Wolff’s preference for the stories in his 1996 collection The Night in Question (12 of its 15 are here), I wish he’d included one I vividly remember from reading it a decade ago, ‘The Life of the Body’. The only way through that is to read all the books again anyway: no hardship. It’s a reviewer’s cliché to say it, but there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length. The only other criticism is that the book isn’t twice as long, and that we have only ten new stories from Wolff to show for the five years since the publication of his last book, Old School (2003). Like Joe in ‘Deep Kiss’, the last new story in the book and a highlight of this exceptional collection, I feel “itchy with thirst and deeply satisfied all at once.”