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 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.