There is a recognition built into a new and selected story collection. It denotes a pretty complete success, a long-running career of accomplished writing in the underappreciated and difficult genre of the short story. Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, the new book by Tobias Wolff is a consistent celebration of his work.
Culling stories from his previous collections — In the Garden of North American Martyrs, Back to the World, and The Night in Question — along with ten newer stories, the book displays Wolff’s talent for unadorned language, subtle imagery, and a penetrating eye for detail. These talents don’t always call attention to themselves, but for all their unassuming nature, Wolff’s stories are as readable as they are compelling.
Wolff’s stories share more than a few strengths with his equally excellent memoirs. In his non-fiction — particularly his childhood tale This Boy’s Life — Wolff cuts deep into every character and scene, revealing honesty that is not always immediately apparent, and often of an unsavory nature. We find characters thinking things they’d never admit to those around them, and there is no defensive posturing — by them or by the author. Ugly honesties are laid bare and often go unredeemed.
Some stories in the collection – such as “Say Yes” and “The Chain” – deal, if a bit indirectly, with race relations. What makes them both so successful is Wolff’s ability to interject a racial division imbedded deeply in his characters — the main character’s friend in “The Chain” refers to “them” constantly, speaking of black people — without making his stories cloyingly instructive. He does not seek to solve his character’s prejudices, but rather to illuminate them as parts of a flawed whole.
In “The Chain” the main character eventually agrees with his friend’s prejudices, assuming a black DJ is selling drugs on the side. How else could he afford his expensive car? he wonders. But we also recognize that slip in logic, that moment of racial intolerance, as a consequence of his already mounting frustration and frantic search for a misguided justice.
And while Wolff lets his character’s flaws speak for themselves, he rarely lets his characters off the hook. They often falter or inflict their failings on others, sometimes tragically. Many of the stories force inactive characters into agency. The boy in “The Liar” has, to this point, lied without reason, without thinking. But, by stories end, his lies, in which family members are often dead, are a choice, a faulty way to push back at his world. In other stories, like the oft-anthologize “Bullet in the Brain”, we see how the characters got to their current, bitter situations.
And in that story, and a few others such as “Hunters in the Snow”, where big violent events do happen, the reader can see Wolff’s talents most clearly. He rarely lets the blood and gunshots amp him up, he never gets carried away with the action. Wolff’s control is his greatest asset, using the violence to sustain tension so that, while we read of two hunters eating pancakes and confessing their insecurities, we don’t find it sweet, we find it cruel. It is tense because there is a third hunter, bleeding in a truck outside in the cold night. The guy eating pancakes shot him. We know this because Wolff told us, and doesn’t feel the need to repeat himself. He doesn’t rub our faces in the blood, because he knows that the way the two hunters ignore their hurt friend is gristlier than any bullet wound.
The new stories are similarly effective, giving us a new collection of unmoored and beaten down characters. Published together, though, they show why Wolff doesn’t have a new collection coming out. They feel disconnected from each other and, since they fail to work together, they all seem slight in comparison to his previous output. His previous three collections, and the selected stories here, work well together to create their own, mosaic world of loss and regret. The new stories don’t achieve that sort of weight when combined. But though they aren’t cohesive, new stories like the aching “That Room” or the tense “A Mature Student” shine as bright as any of Wolff’s other work.
These characters are inactive and self-pitying and unable to get out of their own way. In the hands of a lesser author, they’d be flat and ineffectual or, worse, indistinguishable from characters you’ve already read. But Wolff’s keen eye for the right phrase, the perfect detail, his ability to represent these characters in all their flawed honesty, make these stories brilliantly his own. These stories — Wolff’s work in general — have a reflex test quality. You know they going to strike you, you know how they’re going to strike, and still they hit you, with a careful swing, and you can’t help but react.