Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

4.3 20
by Tobias Wolff

View All Available Formats & Editions

This collection of stories—twenty-one classics followed by ten potent new stories—displays Tobias Wolff's exquisite gifts over a quarter century.  See more details below


This collection of stories—twenty-one classics followed by ten potent new stories—displays Tobias Wolff's exquisite gifts over a quarter century.

Editorial Reviews

Tess Taylor
In his 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. --Tess Taylor

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

Read More

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Bullet in the Brain

Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a POSITION CLOSED sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. "Oh, that's nice," one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more."

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. "Damned unfair," he said. "Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions."

She stood her ground. "I didn't say it was tragic," she said. "I just think it's a pretty lousy way to treat your customers."

"Unforgivable," Anders said. "Heaven will take note."

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that her friend was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, the other customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard's neck. The guard's eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. "Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat."

"Oh, bravo," Anders said. "'Dead meat.'" He turned to the woman in front of him. "Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes."

She looked at him with drowning eyes.

The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard's wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades, then took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness. "Buzz him in," his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a plastic bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, "Whose slot is that?"

Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she'd been talked to. He nodded. "Mine," she said.

"Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag."

"There you go," Anders said to the woman in front of him. "Justice is done."

"Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?"

"No," Anders said.

"Then shut your trap."

"Did you hear that?" Anders said. "'Bright boy.'" Right of out The Killers."

"Please, be quiet," the woman said.

"Hey, you deaf or what?" The man with the pistol walked over to Anders and poked the weapon into his gut. "You think I'm playing games?"

"No," Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red rimmed. The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.

"You like me, bright boy?" he said. "You want to suck my dick?"

"No," Anders said.

"Then stop looking at me."

Anders fixed his gaze on the man's shiny wing-tip shoes.

"Not down there. Up there." He stuck the pistol under Anders's chin and pushed it upward until he was looking at the ceiling.

Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and gilt scrollwork over the tellers' cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again—a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders's eye was Zeus and Europa—portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droppy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there'd been a caption bubbling out of his mouth, it would have said HUBBA HUBBA.

"What's so funny, bright boy?"


"You think I'm comical? You think I'm some kind of clown?"


"You think you can fuck with me?"


"Fuck with me again, you're history. Capiche?"

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche—oh, God, capiche," and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right through the head.

The bullet smashed Anders's skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and lost since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared with the synaptic lightning that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of time to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes."

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him—her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play. Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter's door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so he could give himself the shivers at will—not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien," or "My God, I heard this day," or "All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?" None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, "I should have stabbed him in his sleep."

He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the dust jacket of a novel not long after they graduted, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.

Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, "Lord have mercy!" He did not remember deliberately crashing his father's car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an antiwar rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle's cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they've chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. "Shortshop," the boy says. "Short's the best position they is." Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle's cousin repeat what he's just said, though he knows better than to ask. The other's will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all—it's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those two final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won't be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talen and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
 from jess a, haven director-i have reported all of you, you disgusting perverts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey im star i want to make a story about a teen girl who meets a boy who she used to bullying in sixthgrade they fall in love this stry is about forbidden love, murder, and three girls with a seceret that if i told u id have to kill you i want to know wat yall think three good comments and ill make it a story p.s some sex scenes included
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hold up! Cyber Security has had enough. We have traced your IP's (one of them is and are asking you to stop. Further se.x commets/stories will result in a full blown report to B&N. From, Cyber Patrol.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mr.McLarsen handed out our test results and i quickly flipped mine over. I saw a big fat F. Not surprising. I dont really do well in English. I waited after the bell rang. "Yes Ariana?" "Is there anything I could do to get an A?" "Im Sorry but there isn't". I stood up and grabbed my bag. I walked up to him sexily and pushed him against his desk then leaned my whole body against him. I could feel his manhood straining against his pants. "Are you sure?" I whispered. "This is not appropriate Ariana". I unbuckled his pants and stroked his di.ck through his boxers. He moaned and I pushed away. "That's what I thought, I'll be here tomorrow to get my A". I gave him a se.xy look and I sarted to walk out. I paused and quickly slipped the cu.m covered dil.do out of my dripping wet pus.sy and placed it on his desk. "A present" I said. As I walked out I could see his mouth starting to water
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I walked through the door of my apartment after a long day of work and kicked off her heels. After grabbing a beer and sitting down, I pop in a dirty film to unwind. Soon, the film gets me aroused and I pull up my simple black pencil skirt, & start to rub the crottch of my panties. Letting myself get lost in the moment i pull my panties off and plunge deep in to my hot wet pu.ssy. Moaning I open my eyes to look back at the movie when I see a man looking out his window and into mine. Startled I pull my skirt down and run over to close the curtain....(Reply to Whitney with comments or suggestions, next story will be on res 2.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do it that sounds really good
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love it glen! You should write it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
U r soo beautiful he says whil running his hands down my body, i look at him in shock, i didnt know u were into me, oh babe belive me im soo into you..and so am i i heard my other friend say he walks up behinde me sroking my hair i try to turn around but im held in pace ..im picked up and brougjt to my room the door is locked and they pushed my dresser against the door and computer stand the window i look at them with worry in my eyes.. ar you gonns hurt me? I ask shaking and trying to move ..he pushes my down and luaghs no but it might hurt at first one has my body pinned and th other undresses then they switch ad both o my amazingly handsom friends are ontop of me one says to suq his fiv inch co.ck and i do afraid ht will happen if i dont the other slams his rock hard six inch co.ck into meh tight puzzy i scream and he jamms his co.ck in farther and i almost choke on the onein my mouth....( for more in next re message to ashley.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With my tou.nge b4 i knew it i had his whole entirety in my mouth and wanted more i felt his co.ck shaje he pulled my head away "Matt i like it." He simles hard "ok Babe but its my turn to please you" i simle he lifts me up and puts me on the bed and spreads my legs open and licks his fingers and stuck it in me and started moving in and out "It may hurt at first but you have to endure the pain before it gets better ok babe?" I love him caloing me babe i nod because it feels good untill he pushes all the way in. I scream he lauughs "i told you" but he kept on going i started to feel my puzzy contract he pulled out and he put his head down there and startwd kissing my thighs then he got to my puzzy he kissed it and then i felt his toun.ge he just went for it he started digging in he just licked and his tounge flicked at my cl.it and i curved my back when he got out of me. He said "lets go to the shower." I said ok and led him into my shower. "Now this will hurt at firdt but its like the fingering it will fel ALOT better afterwards after he turned the shower on and put me in it and turned my azz toward the stream then he turned me bacj around he was on his knees and he spread open my azz cheeks "you have a beautiful azz" "thanks" after that he made his tounge stiff and licked in my azz he started eating my azz out eventaully he made me bend down and i felt his co.ck around my hole and he went in and then he kept going in and out the pain was unbearable bbut i acted oike i liked it because i liked making Matt happy we i felt something warm go through my azz he looked guilty i commed but we ARE not done here i love you Beck. And i want to show you" my face was once again red i went to his co.ck again and started licking what come was lefted on it then i started sucking agaib untill i felt more hottness in my thorat i swallowed every bit. "Wow you sure can take alot cant you" i noded as i continued. He lookef at me and yanked me up. And started kissing me while he played with my puzzy finally he asked "Does Gary have con.doms?" "We dont need them im on the pill" i lied i didnt care i didnt wanna stop he picked me up "its ok i knew this was gonna happen tonight i have some in .y pants you go jack off umtill i get it on. I layed on my bed and spread my legs real wide and started tickling my puzzy then he came back with the con.dom on "lets go babe." He didnt go easy on me he went straight in and i swear he ripped something but he kept on going but i was happy he wkept on saying my name with his thrusts in its was like breath Becky breath Bbveeecccklkyyyy i loved it he started to to go slow and powerful i heard his balls hit my azz i told him to go fast again and he listened he started to go really fast i felt my lips tighten around his co.ck and i felt tgat beautiful warm feelimg from him but tgis time i felt it from me too. When he was done he got out of me he feel on me and started kissing me and he went back to my bre.asts and started sucking and bitting me untill we heard the door open he said it was gary and it didnt matter he was gonna go straight to bed so we kept on going he was licking my puzzy again i had my eyes closed when i opened them i saw my brother at my door... he had his co.ck out and a girl was with him "Beck? I dont care keep on going just let us joi you. I didnt say anything my brotger came over to me and just stuck his co.ck into my mouth i just sucked untill i felt matt in my azz and his girl in my puzzy (keep going?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
On a hot California day Chrissy was just walkig down the beach in a skimpy red bikini that displayed her tall, lean, tan body. She was incredibly se.xy and loved to show it off. She put on her sunglasses, set out a towel and searched the beach for any remotely attractive men. Then she saw him. He was tan and beyond ripped, with curly brown hair and sparking blue eyes. She stood up and decided to aproach him. "Hey se.xy! Im Chrissy" She said and nearly got on her tippy toes to kiss his cheek. "Hey. Uhh i dont think we have met before. Im Jeremy" he says and holds her in a tight embrace, thier bodies pressing together. Before he has a chance to release her Chrissy turns and kisses him passionately on the lips, holding both his hands. Slightly shocked, he frenches her back thier tounges wrapping around each other. He puts his hands on her hips and pulls her closer. She in response hooks her thumbs in his swim trunks and begins to pull them down. Then out springs his 13 inch co.ck, hard and erect. Just the sight of it exites Chrissy. Jeremy undoes her bikini top and rubs her pert nip.ples then runs his hands down her body, taking her bikini bottom off in one swift motion. "Fu.ck me please" she desperately whispers to him as she pulls him down onto the towel. In response he rams his di.ck into her and is forced to go slow, as her walls must strech to fit him. She groans loudly and he goes in and out, with every thrust going deeper. "Oh fu.ck Jeremy!!" She screams as he thrust into her and begins picking up the pace. "Oh you like that?!" He nearly has to shout to be heard over her cries of pain and pleasure. He goes in as deep as he can and begins to massage het cl.it. "Oh yes! Yeah!!" She screams as she org.asms. The feel of her pus.sy walls tightening around his di.ck, and the sound of her screams and moans send him over and he shoots jet after jet of hot, white c.um into her. "Oh my god Jeremy!!!!" She moans loudly. Her pus.sy over flows with his c.um and begins to roll down her thigh. He pulls out of her and c.ums all over her large breasts and some even hitting her face. "Oh yes! Fu.ck yes!" He grunts as he c.ums all down her body. She gasps, and her eyes close, filled with bliss and arches her back. "Jeremy..." she pants, out of breath from recent activity. "Suck it." He says and he brings his co.ck, dripping with c.um and her pus.sy jucies up to her mouth, breathing hard. Okay imma cut you off there! Tell me if yu like it and tell me whatcha think! Reply to Mariah and maybe tomorrow i will post part two on the next res!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago