Road Trips through the American Psyche

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Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine
Sunday, April 13, 2008


New and Selected Stories

By Tobias Wolff

Knopf. 379 pp. $26.95

For almost 30 years Tobias Wolff has been writing sturdy, gorgeous and notably unadulterated stories that reliably do what short fiction is supposed to do: illuminate our natures in a lightning flash, drawing us toward our true, difficult selves with language too seductive to resist.

Beginning his career a good 15 years after the likes of John Barth and Donald Barthelme detonated their postmodern bombs, Wolff must have seemed almost reactionary in 1981, when his first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was published to great fanfare. Along with Raymond Carver, his friend and fellow Syracuse professor, Wolff felt no need to lard his stories with overweening irony, reflexivity or anything "meta." The directness of his language and the purity of his aim augured a literary counter-reformation. Here, once again, was fiction about people, not fiction about fiction.

Our Story Begins is a towering monument of a book. Since it would be nearly impossible for any reader to select the "best" of Tobias Wolff, given the remarkable consistency of his output, he has courteously picked 21 of his presumable favorites -- going back to the very beginning -- and then appended to this welcome gift a collection of 10 new stories that alone would be cause for celebration. And in these pages we now have absolute confirmation that, aside from perhaps Alice Munro, there's no one else practicing the form with as much warm devotion and cool mastery.

The men and women who populate Wolff's universe are weary and nervous, saddled with one or another kind of emotional debt, though often unable to articulate the exact terms of that debt. "I wake up afraid," begins one story, "Next Door," about a couple who huffily pass judgment on their volatile neighbors rather than address the issue of the iceberg that sits between their separate beds. When they witness, through their spyglass of a kitchen window, the particular manner in which their fighting neighbors choose to make up, their disgust mixes with regret and combusts. "My wife could hardly speak for a couple of hours afterward," her husband, the narrator, tells us. "Later she said that she would never waste her sympathy on that woman again."

Fans of This Boy's Life, the author's 1989 memoir of his troubled boyhood, will be especially interested to discover (if they haven't already) "The Liar," an earlier story in which Wolff seemed to lay some of the groundwork for the character of his dissembling teenage self. "For several years now I'd been saying unpleasant things that weren't true," the narrator confides. His lies, apart from simply making the world more interesting, allow him to assert control over terrifying events -- such as the terminal illness that has befallen his father. "What if he doesn't outgrow it?" his mother wonders. "What if he just gets better at it?" (Well, he might just go on to win three O. Henry Awards and be shortlisted for the National Book Award, for one thing.)

As he recounted in This Boy's Life, Wolff spent a number of his formative years on the road with his battle-scarred mother, moving from one bad situation to the next. He is drawn, perhaps unsurprisingly, to people in vehicles. A number of these stories are set, primarily or partially, in cars or trucks. "Hunters in the Snow" -- which is either the darkest bit of comic writing or the funniest horror story I've ever read -- follows a pair of friends as they take their sweet time transporting their freezing, mortally wounded hunting partner to the hospital in the back of a pickup. In "The Rich Brother," a pair of estranged siblings on a long car ride take advantage of the opportunity to highlight each other's failings and seize upon each other's vulnerabilities. Other stories -- "Desert Breakdown, 1968," "Powder," "A White Bible" and "Nightingale" -- wouldn't be what they are without cars, which Wolff is capable of turning into potent symbols of abandonment, imprisonment and moral rudderlessness.

"The travel agent who'd booked his flight to Miami had gotten him a bargain rate on a midsize Buick sedan, but once he stepped out of the terminal and into the warm twilight he was overcome by the idea of a convertible; and when he went back inside and the beautiful Latina at the counter mentioned she had a Miata available, he took it without hesitation, though it was ridiculously overpriced and, given the occasion, maybe a little festive." The occasion, as it happens, is the imminent death of this man's mother. He has flown to Miami to sit with her in her final hours, and -- during breaks -- to arrange for her cremation. In his rented lollipop-red Miata, he visits a funeral home and is given the chance to trade, momentarily, his grief for the embrace of an attractive woman he meets there. The choice he makes will have an immeasurably significant impact on his mother's last moments. The ending of this story, "Down to Bone," will make you gasp. Every one of the stories before and after it is good enough to merit reading again, immediately after finishing. ยท

Jeff Turrentine regularly writes reviews for Book World.

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