Thursday, October 8

Considering Tobias Wolff

I apologize in advance for the squee nature of this post. If I were given the ability to write like anyone, it would be Tobias Wolff. (Or C.S. Lewis, but seeing as how this post is about a particular contemporary American rather than a certain mid-twentieth-century Englishman, we'll ignore that for the present moment.) It's kind of hard not to jump up and down on my toes and extol the man's virtues at a rapid rate and in a high-pitched voice when he's attained that echelon of my respect.

I'm sure you would agree were you to read one of his short stories. The things are works of a true master. I have only had the pleasure of reading two of his short story collections, The Night in Question and In the Garden of North American Martyrs, and neither of his memoirs, but that is enough. Freak, “Bullet in the Brain” and “Powder,” two stories which are only 12 pages combined in my edition of The Night, would be enough alone to put him high on my list of all-time favorites alongside Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut and the aforementioned Lewis.

His stories are precise, but that word may be too weak. They enter you, and you don't even notice. Ever hear of the Subtle Knife? The blade so sharp it found the space between atoms? Wolff's prose is like that. It captures complex moods and characters in simple lines and a minimum of words.

“He would hit that note, and once he got her listening there was no telling what might happen, because all he really needed was words, and of words, Wiley knew, there was no end.”

That's from “The Life of the Body.” It's not my favorite, though it did pick up a Pushcart Prize in 1991, but what a beautiful line.

It only helps that there is such a developed moral dimension to Wolff's stories. I don't demand a nice, tidy lesson from my reading, but I do believe there is a difference between right and wrong and that this difference matters. Wolff does as well. His characters are forced to confront their fundamental self images, whether they are good or bad, brave or cowardly, loyal. They know that their choices reflect on them, and they care even if their decision is to abandon whatever is noble for lust or revenge. They know what they are losing, and their actions have consequences for themselves and those they never met. Consider the following from “Smorgasbord,” the first Wolff story I ever read.

“We're supposed to smile at the passions of the young and at what we recall of our own passions, as if they were no more than a series of sweet frauds we'd fooled ourselves with and then wised up to. Not only the passion of boys and girls for each other but the others, too—passion for justice, for doing right, for turning the world around. All these come in their time under our wintry smiles. Yet there was nothing foolish about what we felt. Nothing merely young. I just wasn't up to it. I let the light go out.”

Or this from “Two Boys and a Girl,” a story that demonstrates the false front of sarcasm better than anything else I have ever read.

There were reasons, and they were good reasons, but Gilbert could make no use of them. He knew that he would do what he was going to do... Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. But there'd been no struggle. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.”

Wolff may leave the narrative entirely to make these points, but it doesn't change the fact that he's right.

Were my back against a wall and some hater forced me at knifepoint to admit a weakness of Wolff, (and even that may not be enough. It would probably require a crowd of haters, or I would sooner make a desperate attempt to overpower them or scramble up the wall's bare face than answer that question.) it would be that his stories are too perfect. I know how stupid that sounds, but it's true. His stories are refined, burnished and polished to the nth degree. Not a single word is wasted. Not a single word is left out. Everything contributes to the whole, and nothing detracts from it. But his stories are about largely unexceptional people in situations that, while unique and unusual, are not terribly far-fetched. The choices they face are not so different from those we do, but our lives are rough and messy and incomplete and all the rest. To read a story that we could too easily picture ourselves in but is so smooth and clean and complete almost rings false. Almost. Like I said, the man is a master and does not allow us to dwell on this. There is just too much to be impressed by.

Wolff is old enough to have fought in Vietnam. I hope an awful lot that the man has a few more decades in him and gets a few more collections out before his death. I hope that you have the opportunity to this too.

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