Man bites dog. Of course the pooch had it coming.
In noted memoirist and short story master Tobias Wolff’s third collection of stories, that particular nibble leads to a sequence of events that would have made O Henry nod in appreciation. And this should come as no surprise. Wolff has won three O Henry awards for his short fiction. In addition he has won a Pen/Faulker, a Story Prize and Rea Award. His work is mentioned in the same breath as that of Raymond Carver. They were both on the Syracuse University faculty at the same time so maybe it was something in the water.
Wolff is best known for his memoir, A Boy’s Life
, and his personal experience informs his stories. One features a sadistic father. In another a mother and her son move from city to city, living in boarding houses, never really settling down. We see a small piece of military life. Another is set in a boarding school much like the one Wolff attended. He knows of what he writes when depicting such lives, such places, such circumstances and it comes across.
The title story contains the following line:
No one should be alone in this world. Everyone should have someone who kept faith, no matter what, all the way.
That sentiment permeates the stories in this masterful collection. Many of his characters suffer from loneliness, a sense of isolation, guilt or regret. A man’s act of revenge goes horribly wrong. Another man recalls a magical moment from his childhood and incorporates it into his adult life in a story that looks at the elements of happiness. Want to know what the world thinks of you? One of Wolff’s characters finds a unique way to ascertain his standing. A soldier places himself in peril by his compulsion to mouth off. An adolescent boy wants to be with a particular girl, and gets a chance to try, but can he really rise in stature from what he is, from how she really sees him? A woman and stepdaughter step outside their isolation from each other, briefly. A dying man sees his life flash by. A woman uses guilt to hold on to a friend in danger of leaving. Connections are lost, sought, endangered or never made.
Stylistically, the stories in this collection vary from linear narrative to a mixing of past and present (usually adults looking back on the follies, horrors, or fond memories of youth), from first person narrative to third person. Wolff uses O Henry-like twists in some while other stories primarily show a slice of life, and usually not a particularly happy life. Sadness, loneliness, regret, struggling with moral decisions all live here. There is the odd sign or symbol of hope. There is a laugh or two to be had, but most smiles will arise from the dark irony of several of Wolff’s endings. If there were many literary references here, they went over my head. One sort-of exception is an overt shout out to Richard Brautigan in the story Mortals
. But I did not really understand what Wolff meant by it, so maybe it passed by alongside my head instead of completely over it.
This work is enjoyable for the strength of its portraits. We see lives in moral peril and sometimes physical peril as well. I found the stories satisfying, even if I did not always feel that I was quite grasping what was intended. So if that is acceptable to you, or more likely, if you are more perceptive and clever than I and see the elements that may lie in shadow to me, this is a strong, worthwhile read.