Tobias Wolff published his short novel "The Barracks Thief" last May and waited for the reviews to pour in around him, waited for the warm and rising bath of praise to lift him to a higher level of recognition.

For a year, nothing. In his mind, perhaps, he imagined something on the order of "Wolff has written a jewel of a book" or "a new voice of his generation" or some such puffery. But not a word, loving or savage.

Yesterday came the news that Wolff had won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the only major American literary prize awarded by fellow writers. He will receive his $5,000 prize Saturday at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

"This award," Wolff said yesterday from his home in Syracuse, N.Y., "it's a little manna from heaven."

Wolff was not overly absorbed with the absence of reviews for "The Barracks Thief," a story of three stateside paratroopers during the Vietnam era.

"Luckily I didn't get too depressed," he said. "I was already working on the next project, and that kept me happy and productive."

But in the publishing industry, reviews can be more valuable than any advertisement.

"I kept waiting and nothing happened," he said. "But what could I do? It's a strange business, the reviewing of books. I can't pretend to understand it."

Wolff, 39, teaches literature and creative writing at Syracuse University and is an emerging writer of short fiction, a spare and cunning voice who appears in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly and smaller magazines such as Antaeus and TriQuarterly. His first book, a collection of stories, "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," won a passel of terrific reviews when it appeared in 1981. His stories were compared, especially, to the writing of Raymond Carver, author of "Cathedral" and a colleague at Syracuse.

Wolff's prose has been called "down-side realism" (Esquire) and "dirty realism" (Granta). He has an acute ear for dialogue and a gift for deadeye description.

Here he is in "The Barracks Thief," describing a scene at Fort Bragg:

"It was late afternoon but still steaming. The straight lines of the camp -- files of barracks, flagpoles, even the white-washed rocks arranged in rows -- wavered in the heat. Locusts sawed away in frantic bursts.

"Lewis, gaunt and red-faced, began to whistle. Then he stopped. Our uniforms darkened with sweat. The oil on our rifles stank. Our faces glistened. The silence between us grew intense and I was glad when the first sergeant came up and began to shout at us.

"He told us we were little girls, piglets, warts. We were toads."

Wolff said his work is autobiographical "the way John Cheever meant it," as a register of the writer's emotional life.

"I'm a pretty confused person," Wolff said, "and so are my characters."

Wolff grew up in the Skagit River Valley of Washington state, served four years in the Army, worked briefly as a police reporter at The Washington Post ("They fired me a day before I decided to quit") and earned an undergraduate degree at Oxford University. He is the younger brother of Geoffrey Wolff, author of "Black Sun," a biography of poet Harry Crosby and "The Duke of Deception," a family memoir.

Tobias Wolff won the PEN/Faulkner Award over four other books that received considerably more publicity: David Leavitt's "Family Dancing," Harriet Doerr's "Stones for Ibarra," Donald Hays' "The Dixie Association" and James Purdy's "On Glory's Course."

As a commercial work, "The Barracks Thief" had two strikes against it.

Wolff's publisher has been The Ecco Press, a small house in New York that also puts out Antaeus, an elegant review of poetry, stories and essays. Ecco has a distinguished list of authors (Paul Bowles, Czeslaw Milosz) and projects (the collected stories of Anton Chekhov and a series of "neglected masterpieces"), but like any small press it cannot compete commercially with the likes of Random House, Simon & Schuster and the other behemoths.

The second problem for "The Barracks Thief" was its problematic length. At 101 pages, says Daniel Halpern, editor in chief of Ecco, "The Barracks Thief" "slipped between the cracks."

"I consider 'The Barracks Thief' a novella, not a novel," he added. "In Europe, novellas get reviewed, but here people get nervous about the form. My guess is that reviewers and people who assign reviewers don't know what to make of something that length. Is it a story? Is it a novel? So it got ignored. I'm still angry about it.

"The funny thing is, Toby's stories sold well, around 7 or 8,000 copies. Most books of stories, unless they're by a really well known writer, sell like poetry, maybe 1,000 in cloth and 2,000 in softcover."

Wolff said he began "The Barracks Thief" "with a few hundred pages and I whittled it, carved it down and tried to do a lot in a shorter work. I don't like the usual padding that you find in novels.

"I think the book takes up more room, psychologically, than the 100 pages. I try to pay the reader a compliment by leaving things to the imagination, by letting the reader make conclusions for himself.

"I still don't know why it didn't get a single review anywhere."

The PEN/Faulkner Award and some new publishing arrangements could put Tobias Wolff's work in the hands of many more readers and, perhaps, reviewers.

His next book, a collection of stories titled "Back in the World," will be published by Houghton-Mifflin this fall and a paperback edition of his previous work, including "The Barracks Thief," will be published by Bantam in February 1986.