THE novel, as a form, has a number of advantages over its narrative rival, the short story. It’s a long-term companion. It offers a sustained relationship. You can take it to the beach or on vacation, and it won’t leave you stranded halfway to Cancun. From the practitioner’s point of view, the novel’s chief advantage is that it is the more forgiving. You can take a lengthy detour in a novel and the novel, in the end, can still succeed. You can wax prolific on a minor subject and the novel will absorb it, like a snake swallowing a hog.
Not so the short story. When it’s done well, the economy, the rigor, the precision that the form demands are hardly noticed by its consumer. But it is more difficult to write, in its line-to-line execution, than any other narrative conceit. And Tobias Wolff is a genius at it.
Wolff has been honing his short stories for 30 years. His mind, his wisdom, his timing and his wit cut through our stasis with the elegance of a world-class surgeon. The medical analogy is apt: These are stories that can save your life (if you are inclined, as I am, to believe that fiction is a kind of preventive medicine). At his best, Wolff conjures stories that etch your memory -- which is to say, they become a part of you. This makes him, in my book, a very great writer indeed.
“Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories” includes 21 stories from Wolff’s previous three short fiction collections and 11 new ones, arranged, it would seem, in the order they first appeared in print. (All 32 stories -- and I emphasize all -- have been published in periodicals such as the New Yorker, Playboy and Esquire, the Walrus and the Missouri Review.) Wolff is one of our most anthologized short story writers; his seminal “Hunters in the Snow,” “Mortals” and “Bullet in the Brain” show up, perennially, in college textbooks and syllabuses. Yet reputation aside, let me tell you why you should read this book:
At least four of these stories are as good as it gets. Whether you’re looking at our nation’s canon of short fiction trailing back to Hawthorne and Poe, or focusing on the 20th century masters, Hemingway through Salinger through Carver, Wolff is writing, and excelling, in that league. Of the components in short fiction -- voice, character, motif, trajectory, dialogue, first sentence, pacing, title, curtain line -- Wolff lays each down impeccably and quietly, a master mason, without fanfare and without the current faddishness for flourishes and turkey-cocking. He never has you running to the dictionary. His language is so ordinary that you think you’ve thought it up yourself. A typical first sentence (from “The Liar”) reads: “My mother read everything except books.” Or this, from “Sanity": “Getting from La Jolla to Alta Vista State Hospital isn’t easy, unless you have a car or a breakdown.” Then, there are these first three sentences, from “Next Door": “I wake up afraid. My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. ‘They’re at it again,’ she says.”
All three openings are the sorts of things people say, the sorts of things a stranger sitting next to you might casually (and a little crazily) confess. There’s nothing artificial -- artistic -- about them. They happen, the way life happens. And Wolff, you come to sense, has been letting life happen to him, observing it and noting it, as a surrogate for us all. Here he is describing a family in one of my favorite stories, “Flyboys,” in which two adolescent boys decide to build a jet plane:
“They were lucky people, Clark’s parents, lucky and unsurprised by their luck. You could see in the pictures that they took it all in stride, the big spreads behind them, the boats and cars, and their relaxed, handsome families who, it was clear, did not get laid off, or come down with migraines, or lock each other out of the house.”
The specificity of those details (those locked doors) carries to his dialogue, which, no matter how quotidian, is never empty. In “Mortals,” a man reports his own death to the local paper so he can read his obituary. Eventually he and the narrator of the story (the obituary writer, who gets fired) discuss the situation:
“ ‘You can lead a good life without being a celebrity,’ he said. ‘People with big names aren’t always big people.’
“ ‘That’s true,’ I said, ‘but it’s sort of a little person’s truth.’ ”
Although he writes stories of the upper classes, featuring prep school boys and wealthy South American socialites, Wolff’s favorite characters are those little persons -- three doofus hunters, dangerous in their combined stupidity; a gay Army sergeant conflicted by “don’t ask, don’t tell"; a man who learns that the high school love about whom he has dreamed his whole adult life is irreconcilably dead.
What lifts these people into the realm of literature is what Wolff does with the short story form itself, turning the anticipated trajectory away from the expected by way of what I like to call the “deceptive cadence.” This is a musical device most famously employed by Wagner and Beethoven. It implies a false ending, a series of notes that beg the tonic resolution of its chord (C in the case of C major).
But in a deceptive cadence, the C never comes -- it’s left hanging -- and in the hands of a genius such as Beethoven, or for that matter Wolff, it pivots, shoots off in another direction, in another key. The genius of the unexpected is so simple, so deceptive, that you’re left thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I know it’s crazy, but in some strange way it seems inevitable.”
Wolff made the selection of the older stories here himself -- and, although I’m not in a position to argue with what must have been a personal and highly subjective process, I don’t agree with all the choices. Even after three readings, I have yet to understand “Two Boys and a Girl” and “Powder.” This is not to say they’re badly written; there is no such Wolff story that has seen the light of day. He has changed a few of his titles (which are always spot-on, frequently layered with double and triple meanings), and sometimes more than that. As he indicates in a prefatory “Note From the Author,” “I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts. . . . Where I have felt the need for something better I have answered the need as best I can, for now.”
Which means that, yes, there’s a literary game afoot. If you know Wolff’s first three collections, you might enjoy the (OK, I know: limited) excitement of comparing printed versions. But more to the point, this is a volume that belongs on everybody’s shelf along with Hemingway’s “In Our Time,” Salinger’s “Nine Stories” and the collected works of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Trevor and Alice Munro. Impossible to read at one sitting, the stories -- one or two at a time -- build in your mind like summer storms, and I’ll be damned if “Say Yes,” “Flyboys,” “Bullet in the Brain” and “Desert Breakdown, 1968" won’t stop you in your tracks. As Wolff himself, writes in “The Deposition":
“Then a bus roared past and pulled to the curb just ahead, and the doors hissed open, and the girl stepped out.”
Off you go.
Our story begins.