Tuesday 25 November 2008

'Everybody likes the gory details'

Our Story Begins
by Tobias Wolff

When John Self use the phrase 'my favourite book of the year so far' in September then it's time to sit up and take notice. Doubly so when it's an author you've had no contact with so far. I've been trying trying to fall in love with the short story this year by reading some of the established masters (Carver, Cheever, Chekhov - as they used to say on Sesame Street: these stories were brought to you by the letters C, E and V - weird). Wolff in fact worked with Carver on the faculty of Syracuse University and the cover of this collection proudly proclaims Wolff as the greatest living exponent of the form, bringing together 21 of his previously published stories with 10 new works. As someone new to his work (bar having watched the film adaptation of This Boys Life) it provided a brilliant overview of his writing and certainly compels me, as John suggested it might, to search out more.

There are two things that strike me about his writing. First of all is the accessibility. Wolf's language is uncomplicated, the speech colloquial, but written with the playwright's skill of making a few words mean so much more. John has quoted a great example of Wolff's showiest dialogue but he can also do understatement like this example in his story about a very male kind of friendship in 'Flyboys'.

'I waited while Freddy went into the barn, and when he came back outside I said, "We're going to move." Though no one had told me any such thing, those words came to mind and it felt right to say them.
Freddy handed me a shovel. "Where to?"
"I don't know."

"I'm not sure."
We started back.

"I hope you don't move," Freddy said.

"Maybe we won't," I said "Maybe we'll end up staying."

"That would be great, if you stayed."

"There's no place like home."

"Home is where the heart is," Freddy said, but he was looking at the ground just ahead of him and didn't smile back at me.'

Often it is the perfectly chosen phrase or detail which Wolff gets to work so well for him: the boarding house 'heavy with the smells that disheartened people allow themselves to cultivate' or the 'lollipop-red' sports car in which one man drives to visit his dying mother, a car which, given the occasion, he admits is 'maybe a little festive'.

The second thing is the aspect to his writing for which I gather he is well known: morality. In many of the stories he forces his characters to show honestly which direction their moral compass is facing. Sometimes he does this blatantly, as in 'The White Bible', where a school teacher, on her way home after drinks with friends, is effectively kidnapped by the father of one of her pupils. His wish for his son Hassan to become a doctor stands in jeapordy, the teacher having caught him cheating in an exam. As he forces her to drive, he calls into question her own morals; first her drinking, then hypocrisy, even the fact that she teaches at a Catholic school without actually being Catholic herself (his indignation here making himself a hypocrite). The enforced parent-teacher conference allows Wolff to explore many of their moral facets, and having placed Maureen in a position of physical danger he allows the dramatic tension to shift slowly in the teachers favour until it is she who is in the position of power, who holds the fate of this man in her hands, but still unresolved what she will do with the future of Hassan which she also controls.

These morality tales are sometimes resolved in some sense, like the slap delivered by a policewoman to the smooth talking lawyer in 'The Deposition', but more often they are allowed to hang there, the questions raised, the points of view expressed with honesty and the conclusion, the answer, the moral of the tale left for us to decide or infer. In 'The Night In Question' Wolff has the confidence to make an actual moral quandary the centre of his story, delivering it with the gripping intensity of a thriller, only to then leave it unfinished and show that this is really a story about a sister's love for her brother. Brilliant and brave stuff.

In one of the shortest stories, 'Say Yes', which is just five pages, he manages to pull apart a relationship as a couple wash the dishes. The man thinks inter-racial relationships are a bad idea,

'"A person form their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other." "Like you know me?" His wife asked. "Yes. Like I know you."

When he returns from the bathroom with a plaster for her cut finger she is ready for him: 'I'm black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you marry me?'. They say that there's no such thing as a wrong answer but this isn't always the case in relationships. We are willing him to say the right thing and when he doesn't and the two of them break away from each other like balls on a pool table Wolff shows first the man's ability to recognise his wife's demonstrations of indifference (thereby showing the trouble he's in) and finally, crucially, the uncertainty of ever really knowing anyone.

I could right a whole post on just that one story to be honest. There is a richness to these stories which isn't necessarily apparent at first, perhaps because of the language he uses or the lack of pyrotechnics stylistically. Only once did I find myself thinking that the set-up was a bit tricksy ('Her Dog', in which a man conducts a 'conversation' with his deceased partner's dog) and even then he justifies it by using it describe a relationship, two relationships, with crystal clarity. When Wolff allows those skills to take flight with a longer story like 'Desert Breakdown, 1968' you have a heady concoction filled with symbolism, driven with energy and punch, a story I can't begin to do justice to here. The best thing would be for you to read it yourself. And all the rest too obviously. You won't regret it.


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