Tobias Wolff (born June 19, 1945) is an outstanding contemporary craftsman of the American short story. Working slowly, sometimes taking months and countless drafts, he polishes each story into an entertaining, gemlike work that reads with deceptive ease. He has said, in interviews, that he needs time to get to know his characters but that the finished story no longer holds any surprises for him. For the reader, the result is full of surprises, insights, humor, and other line-by-line rewards, particularly in character portrayal and style. The influences on his work—his friend Raymond Carver and earlier masters such as Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor—indicate the company Wolff intends to keep.
No overriding theme, message, or agenda seems to unite Wolff’s work—only his interest in people, their quirks, their unpredictability, their strivings and failings, and their predicaments as human beings. Despite their dishonesty and drug use, most of his characters fall within the range of a very shaky middle-class respectability or what passes for it in contemporary America. Although most of them do not hope for much, many still have troubles separating their fantasies from reality. Despite their dried-up souls, vague remnants of Judeo-Christian morality still rattle around inside their rib cages, haunting them with the specter of moral choice (Wolff himself is a Roman Catholic). It is perhaps emblematic that a considerable amount of action in his stories occurs inside automobiles hurtling across the landscape (except when they break down or fly off the road).
Wolff himself has called his stories autobiographical (just as his memoirs are somewhat fictionalized), but this seems true only in a broad sense. Wolff goes on to say that many of his characters reflect aspects of himself and that he sometimes makes use of actual events. According to Wolff, “The Liar” mirrors himself as a child: The story is about a boy who reacts to his father’s death by becoming a pathological liar. A story that appears to make use of an actual event is “The Missing Person,” about a priest who, to impress his drinking buddy, fabricates a story about killing a man with his bare hands. Before he knows it, the buddy has spread the news to the nuns.Wolff related a similar story about himself in an Esquire magazine article (“Raymond Carver Had His Cake and Ate It Too,” September, 1989), recalling his friend Carver after Carver’s death from cancer. In a tale-swapping competition with Carver, known for his bouts with alcohol, Wolff bested his friend by fabricating a story about being addicted to heroin; aghast, Carver repeated the story, and people began regarding Wolff with pity and sorrow.
Our Story Begins
A truly autobiographical story titled “Our Story Begins” (a double or triple entendre) probably gives a more typical view of Wolff’s sources of inspiration: uncanny powers of observation and a good ear. In this story, Charlie, an aspiring writer, who barely supports himself by working as a busboy in a San Francisco restaurant, is discouraged and about ready to quit. On his way home through one of those notorious San Francisco fogs, however, he stops at a coffeehouse. There he overhears a conversation between a woman, her husband, and another man. The man tells a story about a Filipino taxi driver’s fantastic love obsession with a local woman, and the trio are identified as a love triangle themselves. Charlie soaks it all in with his cappuccino, then, newly inspired by these riches, heads home through the fog. Wolff brings these stories to a close with a patented ending: A Chinese woman carrying a live lobster rushes past, and a foghorn in the bay is likewise an omen that “at any moment anything might be revealed.”
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
Wolff’s patented ending is an updated open version of O. Henry’s surprise ending, which wrapped things up with a plot twist. Wolff’s endings are usually accomplished with a modulation of style, a sudden opening out into revelation, humor, irony, symbolism, or lyricism. Such an ending is illustrated by “Next Door,” the first story of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. A quiet couple are scandalized by the goings-on next door, where everybody screams and fights and the husband and wife make love standing up against the refrigerator. To drown out these raucous neighbors, the couple turns up their television volume, goes to bed, and watches the film El Dorado. Lying next to his wife, the husband becomes sexually aroused, but she is unresponsive. The seemingly uneventful story ends when the husband suddenly imagines how he would rewrite the movie—an ambiguous ending that suggests both his desire for some of the lusty, disorderly life next door (and in the movie) and the quiet, passionless fate that he is probably doomed to endure.
The next story, “Hunters in the Snow,” perhaps Wolff’s best, is much more eventful and has an unforgettable ending. The story is set in the wintry fields of the Northwest, where three deer hunters, supposedly old buddies, rib and carp and play practical jokes on one another. The ringleader, Kenny, who is driving his old truck, is unmerciful to Frank and especially to Tub. Tub, however, wreaks a terrible revenge when one of Kenny’s practical jokes backfires and, through a misunderstanding, Tub shoots him, inflicting a gruesome gut wound. Frank and Tub throw Kenny into the back of the pickup truck and head off over unfamiliar country roads for the hospital fifty miles away. After a while, Frank and Tub become cold from the snow blowing through a hole in the windshield and stop at a tavern for a beer, where they strike up a sympathetic conversation with each other. Leaving the directions to the hospital on the table, they hit the road again. A little farther on, Frank and Tub have to stop at the next tavern for another beer and, this time, a warm meal. Self-absorbed, they continue their discoveries that they have much in common and become real pals. Meanwhile, Kenny is cooling in the back of the truck, and the story ends when they get under way again:
As the truck twisted through the gentle hills the star went back and forth between Kenny’s boots, staying always in his sight. “I’m going to the hospital,” Kenny said. But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.
The title story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” shows that academics can be just as cruel as hunters (or, in this case, the Iroquois Indians). The story’s protagonist is Mary, a mousy historian who has a terrible teaching job at a college in the rainy Northwest. She is invited by her friend Louise—who is a member of the history faculty of a posh college in upstate New York, Iroquois country—to interview for a job opening there. When Mary arrives on campus, she finds that she has been cruelly exploited: The interview was only a setup to fulfill a college requirement that a woman be interviewed for every job opening. As the story ends, Mary changes the topic of her demonstration lecture and—before horrified faculty and students assembled in the college’s modernized version of the long house—delivers a grisly account of how the Iroquois “took scalps and practiced cannibalism and slavery” and “tortured their captives.”
Two other memorable stories in Wolff’s first collection explore the bittersweet possibilities of relationships that never come to fruition. In “Passenger,” the strictly behaved protagonist, Glen, is conned into giving a ride to the aging flower child Bonnie and her dog Sunshine. They become a working unit in the car, like an informal but close-knit family, and the reader sees that they are good for each other but realizes that the relationship probably would not last much longer than the day’s journey; the probability is symbolized by a hair-raising incident along the way, when the dog leaps on the driver, Glen, causing the car to go spinning down the wet highway out of control. In “Poaching,” a real family gets together again, briefly: A divorced woman visits her former husband and their small son. It is clear that husband and wife should reunite for their own good and the good of the child, but neither will make the first move—even though they sleep together in the same bed. The state of their relationship is symbolized by an old beaver who tries to build his lodge in a pond on the property and is quickly shot.
Back in the World
The stories in Back in the World,Wolff’s second collection, are not quite as finished as the ones in his first but include several worth noting. The title is a phrase used by American soldiers in Vietnam to refer to home. Ironically, from Wolff’s stories it appears that “back in the world” is also a crazy battle zone. Besides “The Missing Person” and “Our Story Begins,” other stories that stand out are “Coming Attractions,” “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” and “The Rich Brother.”
“Coming Attractions,” the collection’s first story, showcases a precocious teenage girl who is every parent’s nightmare. She shoplifts and makes random anonymous phone calls late at night: For example, she calls and wakes an unfortunately named Mr. Love, sixty-one years old, and gets him excited about winning a big contest. First, however, he has to answer the question: “Here’s the question, Mr. Love. I lie and steal and sleep around. What do you think about that?” Still, she reveals another side of herself at the end, when she dives to the bottom of an ice-cold swimming pool in the middle of the night and fishes out an abandoned bike for her little brother.
The two other stories feature cars. In “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” the car of a young family fresh back from Germany—a former American soldier, his pregnant German wife, and their first child—breaks down at an isolated service station in the Mojave desert. The locals do not lift a hand to help, except for a woman who runs the station, and the husband is tempted to abandon his young family there. The story demonstrates that men cannot be depended on, but women are quite capable of taking care of themselves: The German wife beats up one of the local cowboys, and the station operator goes out and shoots rabbits for dinner. In “The Rich Brother,” the collection’s last story, the lifestyles of two brothers clash. The rich brother drives to a distant religious commune to rescue his young brother, but on the way home, they quarrel, and the rich brother abandons the young one along the roadside. As the story ends, however, the rich brother is having second thoughts, afraid to get home and face the questions of his wife: “Where is he? Where is your brother?”
The Night in Question
The fifteen stories in The Night in Question again display Wolff’s command of dialogue, expressive detail, and meticulous plotting. The plots frequently turn on situational irony, and the endings show the principal characters suffering unexpectedly because of their behavior. That behavior devolves from selfdelusion. The disparity between characters’ intentions and the consequences of their actions creates conflict that at times skirts the bizarre but is moving and provocative in the end.
The “Other Miller” illustrates Wolff’s use of a surprise ending to reveal the source of self-delusion. Miller, a young soldier, is told that his mother has died. He is delighted because he believes that the authorities have mistaken him for another Miller in his battalion. He plays along in order to get emergency leave and amuses himself with the sympathy of other soldiers. He never believes his mother has died because she is young and, more important, he is obsessed with punishing her for remarrying after his father’s death. His enlistment, in fact, had been meant to punish her. Not until he opens the door to his home does the truth force its way through his childish spite. The only mistake, all along, has been his; his mother now dead, he has only punished himself with his bitter love.
In some stories the ending is foreshadowed, gradually intensifying for the reader the emotional state of the protagonists. “The Life of the Body” concerns an aging preparatory school English teacher. A romantic, he loves the classics and is liberal in applying their themes to modern social problems. The story opens in a bar. He is drunk, makes a pass at a pretty young veterinarian, and is beaten up by her boyfriend. The next day, heroically bruised, he does not correct the rumors among his students that he has been mugged by a gang. He tells the truth to a friend and admits his foolishness but continues to pursue the veterinarian despite her hostility and dangerous boyfriend. As the story ends, she relents slightly, just enough to give him hope for more adventure and romance. However irrational his actions, he deeply craves direct experience. The title story, “The Night in Question,” similarly heightens suspense in order to depict a complex emotional state with devastating power. Frank and Frances grew up under a violently abusive father. As adults, they seem familiar literary types: Frank has been the wild youth who now has gotten religion; Frances is the long-suffering, practical big sister. In the story, Frank repeats to Frances a sermon he has heard about a man who must choose between saving his beloved son and a passenger train. Frances will have none of the story’s pat message about choice and trust in the heavenly Father. It becomes ever clearer as she listens that she is spiritually alive only when she is protecting her brother. In fact, as their names suggest—Frank (Francis) and Frances—their earthly father’s violence has welded them into a single spiritual being. The story makes the psychological concept of codependency potently eerie.
Like Wolff’s earlier collections, The Night in Question portrays the predicaments of human intercourse vividly and conveys their psychological or philosophical consequence by suggestion.Wolff rarely sermonizes. If he comments at all, he usually comments indirectly, through symbolism or his patented ending. Above all, Wolff is a lover of good stories and is content to tell them and let them stand on their own.
Anthologies: Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories, 1983; The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories, 1993; The Best American Short Stories, 1994, 1994; The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, 1994; Best New American Voices, 2000; Writers Harvest 3, 2000.
Novels: Ugly Rumours, 1975; The Barracks Thief, 1984; Old School, 2003.
Nonfiction: This Boy’s Life, 1989; In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the LostWar, 1994.
Challener, Daniel D. Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John EdgarWideman, and TobiasWolff. New York: Garland, 1997.
Desmond, John F. “Catholicism in Contemporary American Fiction.” America 170, no. 17 (1994): 7-11.
Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction 64. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Kelly, Colm L. “Affirming the Indeterminable: Deconstruction, Sociology, and Tobias Wolff’s ‘Say Yes.’” Mosaic 32 (March, 1999): 149-166.
In May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Prose, Francine. “The Brothers Wolff.” The New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1989, 22.
Wolff, Tobias. “A Forgotten Master: Rescuing the Works of Paul Bowles.” Esquire 103 (May, 1986): 221-223.
____________. Interview by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Publishers Weekly 241 (October 24, 1994): 45-46.
____________. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff.” Contemporary Literature 31 (Spring, 1990): 1-16.