By John Murphy
Posted 9/22/08 at 12:18 AM
Our Story Begins collects new and older short-stories by Tobias Wolff, one of America’s acknowledged masters of the genre. Wolff-hounds will recognize canonical works like “Hunters in the Snow,” “Bullet in the Brain,” and “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” short-form masterpieces that have long-since established Wolff’s reputation as a top-tier wordsmith, a composer of tightly-controlled, morally serious, quirkily comedic stories.
Our Story Begins offers over thirty pieces, including eleven new ones. The bleak humor of some of Wolff’s earlier work—“Hunters in the Snow” is the most morbidly funny story about a hunting accident you’ll ever read—has been replaced by morbidity of a more persistent, subterranean nature. In “A Mature Student,” an Eastern-European professor mocks American optimisim: “Such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven, once understood. Really, you have no comprehension of history. Of how done it is, how historical.” In the nightmarish “Nightingale,” a father drops his ethereal, bookworm son off at a strict military school, only to have a change-of-heart (“why had he considered it at all—surrendering his boy to unknown disciplines and judgments, to powers he knew nothing about except that they were without patience, humor, or mercy?”), only to get lost in the woods, like Dante, unable to find his way back. His decision is frighteningly irrevocable—it is now a part of history. In “The White Bible,” a Muslim father makes a schoolteacher swear an oath on a secondhand copy of the Bible, which contains an inscription to Clara Guitierrez, on the day of her confirmation. The schoolteacher wonders, “Where was she now, this Clara? What had become of her, this ardent, hopeful girl in her white dress, surrounded by family, godparents, and friends, that her Bible should end up in a Goodwill bin? Even if she no longer read it, or believed it, she wouldn’t have thrown it away, would she?”
The latest offerings from Wolff showcase a writer in full command of his gifts, even if his latest crop of stories mostly lack those inspired “Eureka!” moments that made “Bullet in the Brain” and “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” so memorable. They remain, nonetheless, exemplars of clean, limpid storytelling. The war in Iraq looms like the recurring of a half-remembered dream—two stories feature solider protagonists; the aforementioned conflict between an American schoolteacher and an overbearing Muslim father sketches, somewhat clumsily, a miniature of the larger conflict. Many of his new stories feature a “reversal of fortune” of some kind, an old-fashioned, O. Henry style device—a pickpocket shown unexpected generosity, or a student who offers her professor an unexpected lesson. Some of Wolff’s characters do but slenderly know themselves; others catch fleeting glimpses of the abyss within, brief sparks of self-knowledge. Farmhands, snide book critics, gay military officers, repentant fathers—they are all struggling, often bewildered souls, baffled by bad luck, lost in the woods.
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