Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

In his new collection, Our Story Begins, Tobias Wolff?s stories more often than not begin by catching people in what seem to be mundane, routine positions. They launch with almost deliberate flatness. “My friend Clark and I had decided to build a jet plane,” starts one. “They were doing the dishes, his wife washing as he dried,” begins another. “On her thirtieth birthday, Ted threw a surprise party for Helen.” In openings that deftly infer an ordinary world around them, Wolff?s lights come up on familiar people, in familiar places: They live in small towns on the West Coast. They are stuck driving somewhere they do not want to go. They are doing cocaine for a friend?s birthday. They are going hunting. They are building an airplane with a new friend but stop to visit an old one. They are driving cross-country to try to start a new life. It is Wolff?s gift to enter these worlds in a plainspoken way, one that seems matter of fact, but nonetheless determines a great deal quickly. Take the sentences with which Wolff?s entire collection launches: “When she was young, Mary saw a brilliant and original man lose his job because he had expressed ideas that were offensive to the trustees of the college where they both taught. She shared his views but did not sign the petition. She was, after all, on trial herself — as a teacher, as a woman, as an interpreter of history.”

Indeed, here our story begins. With these strokes, Wolff manages to put in play a great many of the elements that will propel “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” forward, and which will repeat, in one form or another, in the next 32 stories, 10 of which are new, 23 of which are re-gathered, and which, combined, reflect three decades of work. “North American Martyrs” launches from a sketch of compressed irritation waiting for release. Wolff suggests that this disquiet springs from a variety of sources: from fear created by power imbalance, from a condition of embeddedness, and from the lurking threat of cruelty and the desire to protect oneself from it. We can see the clockwork quality of Mary’s emotional tension — coiled, oiled, set ticking. The strain of conforming and the need to conform to her job?s culture wears on her. The vicissitudes of academia wear on her. Her own powerlessness wears on her, so that when an extra layer of political maneuvering pushes her towards the breaking point, Wolff makes it feel as if her break is an eruption, an earthquake, any one of those geological forces of release which are arrived at only after the subtle, incremental increase of pressure. They are, to use that classic maxim, at once surprising and inevitable.

The next story, “Hunters in the Snow,” plays with the forces that imbue a similar constellation — fear, power, loyalty, being trapped — in the relationship among three friends out deer hunting. The triangle of relationships is old, fraught and correspondingly strained. The day in question begins ominously for the least-proficient of the three, whose nickname bespeaks both his weight and the ease with which the others keep him in his place: “Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow.” It is an ordinary moment, but one in which something is already amiss. The slight but noticeable disregard shown by two men for the third is the precondition of the entire tale. In each of these two stories, a grain of ordinary irritation grows and twists, so that it seems almost to preordain an act of cruelty that follows.

I write almost to preordain, because an uneasy, unsettled sense of combinations of choice and fate animate most (if not all) of Wolff?s stories. He keeps asking through his characters? actions: What are the conditions that lead a relationship, or a person, to rupture, to change, to explode or implode? Where is the breaking point? To what extent are we trapped and to what extent are we free? As each small drama warily circles these questions, the book?s title might be read as a riddle designed to direct our awareness toward the facts that impel each one. Here are some of the conditions, Wolff seems to say; here is some of the recipe for a small disaster, both awful and cathartic. And it might be argued that his treatment of the subtle motions that can impel significant ends is nothing more than the universal foundation of a certain kind of fiction. It might be argued that it?s the writer?s task to frame a simple dramatic action well, the way it is a certain kind of bistro?s job to make good roast chicken.

If that’s the case, then Tobias Wolff makes a really mean roast chicken. In fact, it is the everyday quality of the ingredients and recipes that makes these stories great. Each tale is delivered in spare, precise prose, and many return us to the spectacle of small slights, subtle cruelties — that in turn lead one character to hurt herself or another to abandon someone he once said he would love. At their best, this simplicity is elevated to the level of the parable. But it’s not God’s love that is illuminated, but the complex ways power and powerlessness interact. Who will hurt whom, and how and when? Within this elemental framework, Wolff sounds complex currents of loyalty and betrayal: One story called “The Rich Brother” begins: “There were two bothers.” It continues: “While Pete was stout and hearty and at home in the world, Donald was bony, grave, and obsessed with the fate of his soul.” From this basic contrast we discover something old, even primal at play here. The dynamic between Pete — wealthy, materialist, and resentful — and Donald — lost, spiritualized, and hapless — both echoes and unsettles the story of the Prodigal Son. Some insoluble unease hovers between the two brothers, while Wolff leaves the question uneasily open: Which character is living the right way? And which is not?

And it?s fitting that there would be stories inside of stories, because Wolff?s tales are also about the kinds of stories his characters tell themselves as they reach or veer away from breaking points. But where do those kinds of stories begin? “I?d given up a lot for my writing,” says the narrator of the story “Mortals,” “and it wasn?t giving me anything back — not respectability, nor money, nor love. So when this job came, I took it. I hated it and did it badly, but I meant to keep it.” In “Desert Breadkdown, 1968,” another character justifies leaving his pregnant wife: “He could leave them. People left and got left every day. It was a terrible thing. But it happened and people survived and they survived worse things.” Yes, they do, but, these stories seem to ask, what does it mean to survive? Survival also allows for an accumulation of small but profound human sufferings. And Wolff shows the ways that stories we tell ourselves while surviving are sometimes themselves translated — dangerously — into a new reality that cannot be averted or stopped. Indignities have mounted, and something else is coming, as Adrienne Rich once put it, “like a relentless milkman up the stairs.” Our story begins: Someone, it seems will take the brunt.