The Magazine

Revealed Truth

In Tobias Wolff's world, wisdom comes with experience.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Mend your lives. You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts and the strength of your arms. Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord. Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.

Her words come from Obadiah, the Old Testament prophet who foretold the downfall of the desert nation of Edom. These words also suggest the notion of self-deception, which permeates Our Story Begins. But in Wolff's world, that notion takes an unexpected turn.

In "The Benefit of the Doubt," Mallon learns the meaning of life from his 11-year-old daughter's bout with a brain tumor. Her course of radiation therapy renders Mallon "intensely conscious of life as something good in itself," and on a business trip to Rome, he has an opportunity to act on his heightened sensitivity to others. Yet when he tries to be sympathetic, his action backfires, and he learns that people (including himself) are both better and worse than they seem.

From the first story in the book, "In the Garden of North American Martyrs," to the last, "Deep Kiss," these narratives are in some way preoccupied with what is eternal in a throwaway world. The conflicts involve moral choices with characters blinded by misperceptions. They don't understand what's happening to them, or they choose not to understand. Either way, they eventually experience a moment of revelation when they're able to distinguish what's right from what isn't.

Diane Scharper teaches at Towson University and is coeditor of Reading Lips, a collection of memoirs.