Ever since the 1981 publication of his first short-story collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Tobias Wolff has been considered by many to be one of America's finest writers, lauded by critics for his philosophical appraisal of seemingly inconsequential moments and his devotion to conversational realism. Wolff's latest is Our Story Begins, which brings together works from In the Garden and his two other short-story collections along with several new tales. Compiled, they show their author to be a craftsman of great substance but also great limitation.
At his best, Wolff is a nuanced chronicler of small defeats and blemished self-awareness. In "Two Boys and a Girl," the author turns the story of a man and his best friend's girlfriend into a tragedy of inevitability: "He was about to betray his best friend," Wolff writes of his protagonist, Gilbert. "And he knew what he was doing. That was why this whole thing was tragic, because he knew what he was doing and could not do otherwise." Gilbert, like so many of Wolff's characters, is both blessed and cursed by his self-consciousness, a situation that transforms his everyday experiences into something extraordinary, even epic.
But these gifts for the psychological are too often hindered by Wolff's deficiencies in the realm of narrative, deficiencies that can lead to maddening gaps in logic. His story "Hunters in the Snow," for example, about three friends airing old grievances while hunting in the woods outside Spokane, Wash., takes an unfortunate turn for the improbable when one of the men is shot. After placing their newly wounded friend in the bed of their truck, the other two hunters, Tub and Frank, calmly drive down the highway discussing the delicacies of their own deteriorating relationship. They stop not once but twice on the way to the hospital, at one point even settling into a roadside restaurant for a long meal. Meanwhile, their friend lies dying in the cold. When they find him trying to pull himself desperately over the tailgate of the truck in an attempt to find help or shelter, all they can think to say is, "It wouldn't hurt so much if you just stayed put."
These slips in logic and motivation might make sense in a novel, where they can be forgiven as strands in a larger tapestry, but in a short story, emotional and psychological truths drawn from contrived premises can't be trusted, no matter how much depth they appear to have, no matter what they seem to say about us.
Wolff clearly knows his way around a typewriter and the disenchanted human mind, but this collection is conspicuously short on honest narrative revelation. If the goal of the short story is to shine light into some small, previously unlit passage of human experience and see it for what it is – life in miniature – then Wolff's world is still consumed by too much darkness: Subtle and articulate, his stories are also far from resplendent.
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