Our Story Begins

New and Selected Stories

by Tobias Wolff

Knopf, 400 pp., $26.95

"The best stories seem to me to be perhaps closer in spirit to poetry than to novels," Tobias Wolff observed in a recent interview. "They don't tell you everything." Wolff's latest offers some good examples. Like poems, the stories show rather than tell; and although they have a narrative structure, they have open endings, which leave readers wondering what happens next.

A highly regarded short story writer, novelist, memoirist, editor, journalist, and professor of English, Wolff has won numerous prizes--including a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and several O'Henry Awards--and these 31 stories (21 selected, 10 new) were written over 30 years. Nearly all showcase his lucid style, his profound sense of irony, his preference for understatement, his eye for the telling detail, and his ear for the sound of language.

One of the stories ends as the protagonist is "roused, elated," by the "pure unexpected music" of this grammatical mistake: "'Shortstop,' the boy says. 'Short's the best position they is.'" In another story a dog is shot: "[H]is legs splayed out on each side, his yellow eyes open and staring. Except for the blood, he looked like a small bearskin rug."

Overall, the stories here don't study emotions so much as they study subtle emotional effects. They look at shadows appearing and vanishing instead of looking at the objects casting the shadows. In one, a man daydreams about a beautiful woman in order to cope with an impending death. Then the heroine of his fantasies dies and he feels a double loss. In another, the protagonist joins the Army to spite his mother, whom he's very close to; in an odd but poetic twist, he winds up spiting himself.

As with much of Wolff's work, these stories are autobiographical. A few echo back to Wolff's service in Vietnam--featured in his memoir In Pharaoh's Army (1994)--but most seem like adaptations of Wolff's 1989 memoir This Boy's Life, which was made into a 1993 film, and features his difficult relationship with an abusive stepfather.

In a sense, the stories seem like close-ups of chapters in his memoir: Wolff was born in Birmingham in 1945; his biological parents divorced when he was 10; afterward he lived with his mother while his older brother (the writer Geoffrey Wolff) lived with their father. Mother and son forged a deep bond, which influenced Wolff's fictional emphasis on the relationship between mothers and sons.

Wolff's separation from his father and his brother led to rifts in the family. One was caused by Wolff's conversion to Roman Catholicism, a decision protested by his Episcopalian step-father. Devoutly Catholic, Wolff considered studying for the priesthood, and though he later changed his mind, never lost a spiritual sense. This profoundly reverberates through his work.

The plots tend to be about the brotherhood of mankind and how that plays out in everyday life. In less talented hands, the concept could feel preachy, but Wolff manages to inspire even when he sermonizes, as in "The Night in Question," arguably the best story in this book.

It focuses on Frances, an older sister who will fight anyone, even God, to protect her younger brother Frank. The victim of an abusive father, Frank is an alcoholic and lifelong loser; Frances is the successful sibling. As the story opens, Frank's found religion and wants to discuss a sermon that centers on a conflict between saving the life of one's son or the lives of a trainload of people. But the point of the sermon isn't the rightness or wrongness of the action; the point is that God is always present, and His presence can be especially felt in difficult moments.

Frank says that faced with a wrenching choice of whether to save one who is dearly loved or many strangers, people must remember that "the Father of All gave his own Son, his beloved, that others might be saved." But rather than accept the implication of her brother's words, Frances insists that this is a "terrible story." She has protected her brother from "neighborhood punks, snotty teachers and unappreciative coaches, loan sharks, landlords, bouncers," even their own father, "and if push came to shove she'd take on the Father of all, that incomprehensible bully."

Ultimately, all of Wolff's characters seek authenticity, or come upon it accidentally. "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" features Mary, a college teacher who pretends to be like everyone else. Gradually, she becomes "part of the college's idea of itself," and when the college closes, she is forced to find another job. She's interviewed for a position but soon learns that she has been duped: A statute requires the department to interview one woman for each opening, and she'd been brought in merely to satisfy the rule. Furious at the hiring committee, she launches into a tirade:

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.

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