Friday, July 22, 2011

A Master of the Short Story

When I read a short story by Tobias Wolff, it’s immediately obvious that I am reading the work of a master story teller. I become so enthralled in the characters, the storyline, and the pristine reality of Wolff’s world that I simply forget I am reading at all. Wolff offers escape into his creation, perusal into the minds of the people he has created, but his stories are believable, real and powerful. If you don’t believe me, pick up his quintessential 1996 collection “The Night in Question.”

If there is a wasted word in these pages, I sure as hell can’t find it. The prose is trimmed like a golf green, but it flows like poetry. It is lyrical, rhythmic and down-right beautiful, page after page after page. It is evident that Wolff selects his words with the utmost care, and each paragraph is filled with extracted meaning. The symbolism, the use of hard and soft consonants, the repetition, the rhythm, Wolff has a surgeon’s precision with language. Each piece is meticulously crafted, leaving no room for waste or doldrums. Take ten books of short stories, boil them down, and this is what you get. The book weighs in at just more than 200 pages, but I got more from this book than the last 400 page novel I read. The only problem with this collection is that there are not more stories.

Wolff has a profound ability to connect the reader to his characters. The characters in this collection are every bit as real as the people you pass on the street everyday. Great fiction writers have many skills, but among the essentials ones should be a desire to explore the intricacies of the human spirit. Wolff has insight into the human experience that is unique in modern American letters.

If short stories are paintings, Wolff uses only black and gray hues, but he crafts an experience that is so real, it doesn’t matter that he leaves out the red, green and yellow paint. Wolff is “strangely roused, elated by those... words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.” He loves the subtleties of language, and that love fills these pages.

“Mortals” is profound and powerful story, one that deserves a level of literary analysis I will not attempt here. Wolff’s writing has so much to offer about the short story as a craft. He is a master, and it’s stories like this that prove it.

“Casualty” is a story about Biddy, a man who has been in Vietnam for months, seen many firefights, but hasn’t killed someone in battle. He’s two months away from leaving when his friend Ryan, also nearing his plane out of Asia, is sent on an ambush mission. B.D. has lost a lot of his soul in Vietnam, but he refuses to let go of his dedication to friendship. “He had been forced to surrender certain pictures of himself that had once given him pride and a serene sense of entitlement to his existence, but the one picture he had not given up, and which had become essential to him, was the picture of himself as a man who would do anything for a friend.” This is all that is left of his self-worth and identity. B.D.’s fate is inseparably tangled up with Ryan’s.

His heart is not in the fight and his Lieutenant tells him: “It sounds to me like you’ve got a personal problem, soldier. If your mission requires personal problems, we’ll issue them to you. Is that clear?” Through his thoughts and actions, Biddy, the protagonist, represents the American public’s struggle with the war in Vietnam. Biddy sits around “waiting for something; he didn’t know what.” He, like the American populace, struggles for someone to blame for all the chaos. “Somebody around here’s got to take responsibility.” This story of friendship, brotherhood and war is one to remember.

“Powder” is a brief story even for Wolff, but it is in these brief stories where Wolff’s talent is most evident. This story is about a father and son who need to get home on Christmas Eve, and the only way to do so is by driving on a closed road over inches of fresh snow. That’s all that happens in this story. But Wolff packs so much meaning and truth into this short piece. “Now you’re an accomplice,” the father says to the son as they pass a police barricade and head into the snow. “We go down together.”

“The Life of the Body” The protagonist, Wiley, is a man with honor, a man with desires both rational and irrational. He’s a smart man, but, like all men, he is subject to innate whims of unknowable origin. “Well, the body had a mind of its own.” A misunderstanding during a conversation at a bar leads a woman to think Wiley is a creep and a potential stalker. He wants to set the record straight, so he tries to track her down, which only leads the woman to think that he’s even crazier. I found myself begging Wiley to stop making things worse, but unable to put the story down.

“The Other Miller” is a Vietnam-era tale of a young man named Miller who is training for deployment when he gets notice from the Army that his mother has died. Miller thinks the Army has mixed him up with “the other Miller” of the same name, even though there is no apparent reason to believe this is the case. Miller is a cynic. “The future. Didn’t everybody know enough about the future already, without rooting around for the details? There is only one thing you need to know about the future: everything gets worse. Once you have that, you have it all. The details don’t bear thinking about.” Miller hasn’t spoken to his mother in two years, ever since she married the Phil Dove. Wolff loves playing with the names to up the moral heft of his stories, and this is a great example of that. Miller hates Phil with the same passion the military and political hacks hated the “doves” during the Vietnam conflict. This is a story of family tragedy, but it’s also the story of a nation ripped apart by war and animosity. The ending is superbly vague and haunting. This is one of my favorite Wolff stories ever, and it deserves to be read and taught in high school English classes instead of whatever crap the kids read these days.

It’s incredible how quickly Wolff can draw his readers into his story. Using only the title and the first line, Wolff grabs the reader. This is best exemplified in his story “Two Boys and a Girl.” The title already spells trouble. Then comes the dynamic first line: “Gilbert saw her first.” Wolff tells the reader so much in those first four words, and the rest of the story moves along the lines those words establish. It’s a tragicomic love story full of tension and desire. Rafe is away and Gilbert is feels the need to move in on his girlfriend. The crux of the tragedy is Gilbert’s inability to stop himself: “he knew what he was doing and could not otherwise.” The story is plotted perfectly but not weighed down. Its themes are poignant and easy to relate to. This story is about rationalizing things we know inside to be wrong. “Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. But there’d been no struggle. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.” It ends with a hilarious twist that leaves the reader feeling fulfilled and relieved.

“Migraine” also starts off in declarative and powerful prose: “It began while she was at work.” In addition to being a story about a woman has a migraine, is a story about loneliness, alienation and the inability to relate to others on an intimate level. It’s also about passive aggressive people, and how they are hell to deal with.

The titular story is one of chaotic family relationships. The father is a violent, dominant prick and beats his kids. But his son refuses to back down. It’s about avoiding our inability to control external events, and about what happens when we stake a moral claim and refuse to back down.

The final story, “Bullet in the Brain,” has a startling title, and the first line backs it up by describing a man waiting in line at a bank with a “murderous temper.” This can’t go well, and Wolff wants us to know it. Sure enough, robbers with guns come in. I’m reminded of Chekov’s advice that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it had better go off by the third. Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that Wolff knows his Chekov. But Wolff’s writing a short story, so there’s no time for a third act. The action is quick, blunt and brutal. But in this story, death isn’t the end. Far from it. This short story is like a play or a novel trimmed down to its core. It’s a superb piece of work, and a great way to end this collection.

If you love storytelling and you love language, you need to read this collection. Enough said. Cheers, Isaac.

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