The Night in Question: Storiesby Tobias Wolff
One of the sinuous and subtly crafted stories in Tobias Wolff's new collectionhis first in eleven yearsbegins with a man biting a dog. The fact that Wolff is reversing familiar expectations is only half the point. The other half is that Wolff makes the reversal seem inevitable: the dog has attacked his protagonist's young daughter. And everywhere in… See more details below
One of the sinuous and subtly crafted stories in Tobias Wolff's new collectionhis first in eleven yearsbegins with a man biting a dog. The fact that Wolff is reversing familiar expectations is only half the point. The other half is that Wolff makes the reversal seem inevitable: the dog has attacked his protagonist's young daughter. And everywhere in The Night in Question, we are reminded that truth is deceptive, volatile, and often the last thing we want to know.
A young reporter writes an obituary only to be fired when its subject walks into his office, very much alive. A soldier in Vietnam goads his lieutenant into sending him on increasingly dangerous missions. An impecunious mother and son go window-shopping for a domesticity that is forever beyond their grasp. Seamless, ironic, dizzying in their emotional aptness, these fifteen stories deliver small, exquisite shocks that leave us feeling invigorated and intensely alive.
These 14 tales in Wolff's third collection (Back in the World, 1985; In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, 1981) deal variously with combative family relationships, the sources of violence and neurosis lying just beneath suburban and quotidian surfaces, and memories of the war in Vietnam (e.g., "Casualty" and "The Other Miller") that possess and transform those who served and suffered there. Wolff is at his weakest when his stories seem too nakedly personal (as in "Powder" and "Firelight"), or when they're too clearly the products of controlling ideassuch as the unbelievable tale "A Bullet in the Brain," in which a vitriolic book-reviewer can't help heckling the bank robber who's holding him at gunpoint, and is shot to death. Forget these stories, but do not miss: "Flyboys," a portrayal of unstable teenage friendship in which Wolff brilliantly evokes the controlled emotions of a boy who resists being pulled into the orbit of a suffering family; "Mortals," a snaky, surprising piece about a composer of newspaper obituaries who's fired when he fails to check on a reported death, and undergoes a strange encounter with the man whom he had, as it were, pronounced dead; "Smorgasbord," a charming comedy involving horny prep-school students, the alluring stepmother of a dictator's son, and the process of shedding youth's romantic illusions; and especially "The Chain," which opens with a terrifyingly vivid description of a man rescuing his small daughter from a vicious dog, then slowly, deftly traces the vengeful "chain" of violent acts that result from his reluctant complicity in a plot to punish the dog's callous owners. This tale is a dazzler, plotted with really remarkable ingenuity.
Understatement, irony, and surprising juxtapositions are the key ingredients of these generally accomplished and resonant fictionsthe best of which are certainly among the most accomplished being written in our time.
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Excerpt from Firelight
My mother swore we'd never live in a boardinghouse again, but circumstances did not allow her to keep this promise. She decided to change cities; we had to sleep somewhere. This boardinghouse was worse than the last, unfriendly, funereal, heavy with the smells that disheartened people allow themselves to cultivate. On the floor below ours a retired merchant seaman was coughing his lungs out. He was a friendly old guy, always ready with a compliment for my mother as we climbed past the dim room where he sat smoking on the edge of his bed. During the day we felt sorry for him, but at night, as we lay in wait for the next racking seizure, feeling the silence swell with it, we hated him. I did, anyway.
My mother said this was only temporary. We were definitely getting out of there. To show me and maybe herself that she meant business, she went through the paper during breakfast every Saturday morning and circled the advertisements for furnished apartments that sounded, as she put it, "right for our needs." I liked that expression. It made me feel as if our needs had some weight in the world, and would have to be reckoned with. Then, putting on her shrewd face, my mother compared the rents and culled out the most expensive apartments and also the very cheap ones. We knew the story on those, the dinky fridge and weeping walls, the tub sinking through the bathroom floor, the wife-beater upstairs. We'd been that route. When my mother had five or six possibilities, she called to make sure they were still open and we spent the day going from one to another.
We couldn't actually take a place yet. The landlords wanted first and last months' rent, plus cleaning deposit, and it was going to be a while before my mother could put all that together. I understood this, but every Saturday my mother repeated it again so I wouldn't get carried away. We were just looking. Getting a feel for the market.
There is pleasure to be found in the purchase of goods and services. I enjoy it myself now, playing the part of a man who knows what he wants and can take it home with him. But in those days I was mostly happy just to look at things. And that was lucky for me, because we did a power of looking, and no buying. My mother wasn't one of those comparison shoppers who head straight for the price tag, shaking their faces and beefing about the markup to everyone in sight. She had no great interest in price. She had no money, either, but it went deeper than that. She liked to shop because she felt at home in stores and was interested in the merchandise. Sales clerks waited on her without impatience, seeing there was nothing mean or trivial in her curiosity, this curiosity that kept her so young and drove her so hard. She just had to see what was out there.
We'd always shopped, but that first fall in Seattle, when we were more broke than we'd ever been, we really hit our stride. We looked at leather luggage. We looked at televisions in large Mediterranean consoles. We looked at antiques and Oriental rugs. Looking at Oriental rugs isn't something you do lightly, because the men who sell them have to work like dogs, dragging them down from these tall teetering piles and then humping them over to you, sweating and gasping, staggering under the weight, their faces woolly with lint. They tend to be small men. You can't be squeamish. You have to be free of shame, absolutely sure of your right to look at what you cannot buy. And so we were. When the new fashions came in, my mother tried them on while I watched. She had once been a model and knew how to strike attitudes before the mirror, how to walk casually away and then stop, canting one hip and glancing over her shoulder as if someone had just called her name. When she turned to me I expressed my judgments with a smile, a shrug, a sour little shake of the head. I thought she was beautiful in everything but I felt obliged to discriminate. She didn't like too much admiration. It suffocated her.
We looked at copper cookware. We looked at lawn furniture and pecan dining room sets. We spent one whole day at a marina, studying the inventory of a bankrupt Chris-Craft dealership. The Big Giveaway, they called it. It was the only sale we ever made a point of going to.
My mother wore a smart gray suit when we went house hunting. I wore my little gentleman's outfit, a V-neck sweater with a bow tie. The sweater had the words Fraternity Row woven across the front. We looked respectable, as, on the whole, we were. We also looked solvent.
On this particular day we were touring apartments in the university district. The first three we looked at were decent enough, but the fourth was a wreck--the last tenant, a woman, must have lived there like an animal in a cave. Someone had tried to clean it up but the job was hopeless. The place smelled like rotten meat, even with the windows open and the cold air blowing through. Everything felt sticky. The landlord said that the woman had been depressed over the breakup of her marriage. Though he talked about a paint job and new carpets, he seemed discouraged and soon fell silent. The three of us walked through the rooms, then back outside. The landlord could tell we weren't biting. He didn't even offer us a card.
We had one more apartment to look at, but my mother said she'd seen enough. She asked me if I wanted to go down to the wharf, or home, or what. Her mouth was set, her face drawn. She tried to sound agreeable but she was in a black mood. I didn't like the idea of going back to the house, back to the room, so I said why didn't we walk up to the university and take a look around. She squinted up the street. I thought she was going to say no. "Sure," she said. "Why not? As long as we're here."
We started walking. There were big maples along the sidewalk. Fallen leaves scraped and eddied around our legs as the breeze gusted. "You don't ever let yourself go like that," my mother said, hugging herself and looking down. "There's no excuse for it."
She sounded mortally offended. I knew I hadn't done anything, so I kept quiet. She said, "I don't care what happens, there is no excuse to give up like that. Do you hear what I'm saying?"
A group of Chinese came up behind us, ten or twelve of them, all young men, talking excitedly. They parted around us, still talking, and rejoined like water flowing around a stone. We followed them up the street and across the road to the university, where we wandered among the buildings as the light began to fail and the wind turned raw. This was the first really cold day since we'd moved here and I wasn't dressed for it. But I said nothing, because I still didn't want to go home. I had never set foot on a campus before and was greedily measuring it against my idea of what it should look like. It had everything. Old-looking buildings with stone archways and high, arched windows. Rich greenswards. Ivy. The leaves of the ivy had turned red. High on the west-facing walls, in what was left of the sunshine, the red leaves glittered as the wind stirred them. Every so often a great roar went up from Husky Stadium, where a game was in progress. Each time I heard it I felt a thrill of complicity and belonging. I believed that I was in place here, and that the students we passed on the brick walkways would look at me and see one of themselves--Fraternity Row--if it weren't for the woman beside me, her hand on my shoulder. I began to feel the weight of that hand.
My mother didn't notice. She was in good spirits again, flushed with the cold and with memories of days like this at Yale and Trinity, when she used to get free tickets to football games from a girlfriend who dated a player. She had dated one of the players herself, an All-American quarterback from Yale named Dutch Diefenbacker. He'd wanted to marry her, she added carelessly.
"You mean he actually asked you?"
"He gave me a ring. My father sold it to him. He'd bought it for this woman he had a crush on, but she wouldn't accept it. What she actually said was 'Why, I wouldn't marry an old man like you!' " My mother laughed.
"Wait a minute," I said. "You had a chance to marry an All-American from Yale?"
"So why didn't you?"
We stopped beside a fountain clotted with leaves. My mother stared into the water. "I don't know. I was pretty young then, and Dutch wasn't what you'd call a scintillating guy. He was nice . . . just dull. Very dull." She drew a deep breath and said, with some violence, "God, he was boring!" "I would've married him," I said. I'd never heard about this before. That my mother, out of schoolgirl snobbery, had deprived me of an All-American father from Yale was outrageous. I would be rich now, and have a collie. Everything would be different.
We circled the fountain and headed back the way we'd come. When we reached the road my mother asked me if I wanted to look at the apartment we'd skipped. "Oh, what the heck," she said, seeing me hesitate. "It's around here somewhere. We might as well make a clean sweep."
I was cold, but because I hadn't said anything so far I thought it would sound false if I complained now, false and babyish. She stopped two girls wearing letter sweaters--co-eds, I thought, finding a cheap, keen excitement in the word--and while they gave her directions I studied the display in a bookstore window, as if I just happened to be standing beside this person who didn't know her way around.
The evening was clear and brief. At a certain moment the light flared weakly, and then it was gone. We walked several blocks, into a neighborhood of Victorian houses whose windows, seen from the empty street, glowed with rich, exclusive light. The wind blew at our backs. I was starting to shake. I still didn't tell my mother. I knew I should have said something earlier, that I'd been stupid not to, and now I fastened all my will on the effort to conceal this stupidity by maintaining it.
We stopped in front of a house with a turret. The upper story was dark. "We're late," I said.
"Not that late," my mother said. "Besides, the apartment's on the ground floor."
She walked up to the porch while I waited on the sidewalk. I heard the muted chime of bells, and watched the windows for movement.
"Nuts...I should've called," my mother said. She'd just turned away when one of the two doors swung open and a man leaned out, a big man silhouetted in the bright doorway. "Yes?" he said. He sounded impatient, but when my mother turned to face him he added, more gently, "What can I do for you?" His voice was so deep I could almost feel it, like coal rumbling down a chute.
She told him we were here about the apartment. "I guess we're a little late," she said.
"An hour late," he said.
My mother exclaimed surprise, said we'd been walking around the university and completely lost track of time. She was very apologetic but made no move to go, and it must have been clear to him that she had no intention of going until she'd seen the apartment. It was clear enough to me. I went down the walkway and up the porch steps.
He was big in every direction--tall and rotund with a massive head, a trophy head. He had the kind of size that provokes, almost inevitably, the nickname "Tiny," though I'm sure nobody ever called him that. He was too solemn, preoccupied, like a buffalo in the broadness and gravity of his face. He looked down at us through black-framed glasses. "Well, you're here," he said, not unkindly, and we followed him inside.
The first thing I saw was the fire. I was aware of other things, furniture, the church-like expanse of the room, but my eyes went straight to the flames. They burned with a hissing sound in a fireplace I could have walked into without stooping, or just about. A girl lay on her stomach in front of the fire, one bare foot raised and slowly twisting, her chin propped in her hand. She was reading a book. She went on reading it for a few moments after we came in, then sat up and said, very precisely, "Good evening." She had boobs. I could see them pushing at the front of her blouse. But she wasn't pretty. She was owlish and large and wore the same kind of glasses as the man, whom she closely and unfortunately resembled. She blinked constantly. I felt immediately at ease with her. I smiled and said "Hi," instead of assuming the indifference, even hostility, with which I treated pretty girls.
Something was in the oven, something chocolate. I went over to the fire and stood with my back to it, flexing my hands behind me.
"Oh yes, it's quite comfortable," the man said in answer to a comment of my mother's. He peered around curiously as if surprised to find himself here. The room was big, the biggest I'd ever seen in an apartment. We could never afford to live here, but I was already losing my grip on that fact.
"I'll go get my wife," the man said, then stayed where he was, watching my mother.
She was turning slowly, nodding to herself in a pensive way. "All this room," she said. "It makes you feel so free. How can you bear to give it up?" At first he didn't answer. The girl started picking at something on the rug. Then he said, "We're ready for a bit of a change. Aren't we, Sister?" She nodded without looking up.
A woman came in from the next room, carrying a plate of brownies. She was tall and thin. Deep furrows ran down her cheeks, framing her mouth like parentheses. Her gray hair was pulled into a ponytail. She moved toward us with slow, measured steps, as if carrying gifts to the altar, and set the plate on the coffee table. "You're just in time to have some of Dr. Avery's brownies," she said.
I thought she was referring to a recipe. Then the man hurried over and scooped up a handful, and I understood. I understood not only that he was Dr. Avery, but also that the brownies belonged to him; his descent on the plate bore all the signs of jealous ownership. I was nervous about taking one, but Sister did it and survived, and even went back for another. I had a couple myself. As we ate, the woman slipped her arm behind Dr. Avery's back and leaned against him. The little I'd seen of marriage had disposed me to view public affection between husbands and wives as pure stagecraft--Look, this is a home where people hug each other--but she was so plainly happy to be where she was that I couldn't help feeling happy with her.
My mother prowled the room restlessly. "Do you mind if I look around?" she said.
Mrs. Avery asked Sister to show us the rest of the apartment.
More big rooms. Two of them had fireplaces. Above the mantel in the master bedroom hung a large photograph of a man with dark, thoughtful eyes. When I asked Sister who it was, she said, a shade importantly, "Gurdjieff."
I didn't mind her condescension. She was older, and bigger, and I suspected smarter than me. Condescension seemed perfectly in order.
"Gurdjieff," my mother said. "I've heard of him."
"Gurdjieff," Sister repeated, as though she'd said it wrong.
We went back to the living room and sat around the fire, Dr. and Mrs. Avery on the couch, my mother in a rocking chair across from them. Sister and I stretched out on the floor. She opened her book, and a moment later her foot rose into the air again and began its slow twisting motion. My mother and Mrs. Avery were talking about the apartment. I stared into the flames, the voices above me pleasant and meaningless until I heard my name mentioned. My mother was telling Mrs. Avery about our walk around the university. She said it was a beautiful campus.
"Beautiful?" Dr. Avery said. "What do you mean by beautiful?"
My mother looked at him. She didn't answer.
"I assume you're referring to the buildings."
"Sure. The buildings, the grounds. The general layout."
"Pseudo-Gothic humbug," Dr. Avery said. "A movie set."
"Dr. Avery believes that the university pays too much attention to appearances," Mrs. Avery said.
"That's all they pay attention to," Dr. Avery said.
"I wouldn't know about that," my mother said. "I'm not an expert on architecture. It looked nice enough to me."
"Yes, well that's the whole point, isn't it?" Dr. Avery said. "It looks like a university. The same with the so-called education they're selling. It's a counterfeit experience from top to bottom. Utterly hollow. All materia, no anima."
He lost me there, and I went back to looking at the flames. Dr. Avery rumbled on. He had been quiet before, but once he got started he didn't stop, and I wouldn't have wanted him to. The sound of his voice made me drowsy with assurance, like the drone of a car engine when you're lying on the backseat, going home from a long trip. Now and then Mrs. Avery spoke up, expressing concord with something the Doctor had said, making her complete agreement known; then he resumed. Sister shifted beside me. She yawned, turned a page. The logs settled in the fireplace, very softly, like some old sleeping dog adjusting his bones.
Dr. Avery talked for quite a while. Then my mother spoke my name. Nothing more, only my name. Dr. Avery went on as if he hadn't heard. He was leaning forward, one finger wagging to the cadence of his words, glasses glinting as his great head shook. I looked at my mother. She sat stiffly in the rocker, her hands kneading the purse in her lap. Her face was bleak, frozen. It was the expression she wore when she got trapped by some diehard salesman or a pair of Mormons who wouldn't go away. She wanted to leave.
I did not want to leave. Nodding by the fire, torpid and content, I had forgotten that this was not my home. The heat and the firelight worked on me like Dr. Avery's voice, lulling me into a state of familial serenity such as these people seemed to enjoy. I even managed to forget they were not my family, and that they too would soon be moving on. I made them part of my story without any sense that they had their own to live out.
What that was, I don't know. We never saw them again. But now, so many years later, I can venture a guess. My guess is that Dr. Avery had been denied tenure by the university, and that this wasn't the first to prove itself unequal to him, nor the last. I see him carrying his fight against mere appearances from one unworthy institution to the next, each of them refusing, with increasing vehemence, his call to spiritual greatness. Dr. Avery's colleagues, small minds joined to small hearts, ridicule him as a nuisance and a bore. His high-mindedness, they imply, is a cover for lack of distinction in his field, whatever that may be. Again and again they send him packing. Mrs. Avery consoles his wounded anima with unfailing loyalty, and ministers to his swelling materia with larger and larger batches of brownies. She believes in him. Her faith, whatever its foundation, is heroic. Not once does she imagine, as a lesser woman might, that her chances for common happiness -- old friends, a place of her own, a life rooted in community--have been sacrificed not to some higher truth but to vanity and arrogance.
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