Like Antaeus, the mythological giant who was invincible as long as his feet touched ground--Hercules defeated him by hoisting him over his head--Tobias Wolff needs earth to stand on. The solidity it gives him liberates an artistry shot through with colors, subtleties, nuances and fantasy. He finds his Antaean earth mainly in two things: war and childhood. On other themes, seeking an equivalent ground, his stories sometimes force their conclusions.
Author most recently of "In Pharaoh's Army" (war) and "This Boy's Life" (childhood), Wolff is rarely less than agile and alluring. He will hone and shape a phrase so that the page becomes a jigsaw puzzle into which it locks: the undreamed-of and only possible fit.
Of the 15 stories in this new collection, one touches on war and eight on childhood or adolescence; with an exception or two they are propelled by the spirit Wolff gives them, not the design he arranges for them. Several of the others, readable and attractive, show signs of gimmickry. All short stories are traps: From some we retain the living prey; from others, the ingenious mechanism.
"Chain" begins with a heart-stopping bravura passage. Gold is watching his daughter sled down a hill, when a dog races out in pursuit. Nightmarishly the father slithers down after; by the time he gets there the dog is savaging the child. Gold has to bite through the dog's ear to get him to let go and, miraculously, the girl is not badly hurt.
Unable to get the police to act, Gold accepts a friend's offer to kill the dog; later when a celebrity DJ crashes into the friend's car and refuses to pay, Gold returns the favor by bashing the DJ's car with a crowbar. It is a futile and finally tragic chain of reprisal; by the end we have a provocative lesson--Gold is part Jewish and broods about the passivity of the Holocaust victims--but no more.
"The Other Miller" is an over-arranged story about a boy who joins the army to punish his mother for remarrying. He intends to forgive her when she is sufficiently punished; his plan is ironically frustrated. "Mortals" recasts the old tale of a man pretending to die so he can hear what his friends say about him; here it takes the form of sending in his own obituary to the local newspaper. "Two Boys and a Girl" contains another plot-heavy twist: The protagonist takes his revenge on a girl who prefers another boy by persuading her that her persnickety father will be delighted if she allows him to paint her white picket fence red.
The other stories take us much farther, into the grounded mysteries of war and childhood. Only one is about war, in fact, but it is splendid. "Casualty" begins with an account of two platoon buddies near the end of their tour of duty in Vietnam: Sears, meticulous and protective, and Ryan, comic and wild. A new lieutenant replaces the old, seasoned commander. He is insecure and, with his round face and squeaky voice, earns the nickname Elmer Fudd.
Despite Sears' cautions, Ryan can't help goading the new lieutenant; in return he is maneuvered into volunteering, out of defiance, for the most dangerous patrols traditionally spared those about to go home. Sears protests futilely; Ryan is mortally wounded--not on patrol but on a routine job.
Maintaining dramatic tension, Wolff eschews drama--war is more terrible than that. And the ending seems to cut away entirely. In the evacuation plane, a nurse holds Ryan's hand till he dies, then stares through the porthole at a Pacific dawn and imagines what it would be like to be there on a vacation cruise. Sears and Ryan are out of the story, a peacetime vision backlights the horror.
The heart of this collection is half-a-dozen stories of childhood or adolescence. More specifically, Wolff's subject is the shadow cast on children and adolescents by the pain, hopes, frustrations and perils of the adults they depend upon.
"Powder," little more than a vignette, plays the 12-year-old narrator between his estranged mother and father. The man persuades his wife to let him take the boy skiing, promising to have him back for Christmas Eve dinner. The boy is cold and worried as his father--"rumpled, kind, bankrupt of honor, flushed with certainty"--insists on prolonging the ski-runs even though it's getting late.
It snows, the road is closed. In a scene recalling, as several of the stories do, one in the autobiographical "This Boy's Life," the father maneuvers his sports car through the barriers and speeds perilously through the blinding white. It is reckless, perhaps criminally reckless, yet the boy--careful, punctilious--is thrillingly abducted, for a moment, into his father's world of exuberant peril.
In "Flyboys," the narrator, bright but insecure, allies himself with a confident friend in a project to build an airplane. Clark, the friend, has all the skills; the narrator keeps his edge through intellectual arrogance. The edge crumbles when Clark insists that they go see Fred, the narrator's former buddy, who has an airplane part in his barn that they can use. After Fred's brother was killed in a road accident, the narrator had stopped visiting him; now he dreads seeing him. Beautifully, Wolff evokes a child's terror of contagion in visiting a household darkened by adult tragedy.
In "Firelight," a mother deserted by her husband struggles to survive with her son; they move from boarding house to boarding house while she tries to keep their spirits up by inspecting apartments that they will never be able to afford. "Testing the market," she calls it. One freezing night they visit a spacious apartment about to be vacated by a professor and his family.
There is a warm fire, the wife passes brownies, the professor talks ebulliently. Even as he imagines himself part of this comfortable home, the boy--expert at sniffing out the nakedness of adults--senses hollowness and peril. The professor is an embittered man who has been denied tenure at college after college; now he must move his patient family once more.
In the narrator's richly portrayed vision--as with the adolescent girl in the witty and sinuous "Sanity," with the grown-up sister in the wild "The Night in Question," and even in the comically inspired story about the shooting of a book critic in a bank holdup (he cannot help criticizing the robbers' prose)--we see the child that lives in every adult, and the orphan that lives in every child.