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Wolff, Tobias (Jonathan Ansell)

WOLFF, Tobias (Jonathan Ansell)

Nationality: American. Born: Birmingham, Alabama, 19 June 1945. Education: Hill School, 1964; Oxford University, B.A. 1972, M.A. 1975; Stanford University, California, M.A. 1977. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1964-68: Lieutenant. Family: Married Catherine Dolores Spohn in 1975; two sons and one daughter. Career: Jones Lecturer in creative writing, Stanford University, (Stegner fellow), 1975-78; since 1980 Peck Professor of English, Syracuse University, New York. Awards: National Endowment fellowship, 1978, 1985; Rinehart grant, 1979; O. Henry award, for short story, 1980, 1981, 1985; St. Lawrence award, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982; PEN/Faulkner award, 1985; Rea award, for short story, 1989; Whiting Foundation award, 1990; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest award, 1994; Lyndhurst Foundation award, 1994; Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone's award, 1994. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.

Publications

Novel

The Barracks Thief. New York, Ecco Press, 1984; London, Cape, 1987.

Short Stories

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. New York, Ecco Press, 1981; as Hunters in the Snow, London, Cape, 1982.

Back in the World. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

The Night in Question: Stories. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Other Miller," in The Best American Short Stories 1987, edited by Ann Beattie and Shannon Ravenel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

"Smorgasbord," in The Best American Short Stories 1988, edited by Mark Helprin and Shannon Ravenel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

"Migraine," in Antaeus (New York), Spring-Autumn, 1990.

"Sanity," in Atlantic (Boston), December 1990.

Other

Ugly Rumours. London, Allen and Unwin, 1975.

This Boy's Life: A Memoir. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, and London, Bloomsbury, 1989.

In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War. New York, Knopf, and London, Bloomsbury, 1994.

Editor, Matters of Life and Death: New American Short Stories. Green Harbor, Massachusetts, Wampeter Press, 1983.

Editor, The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. New York, Bantam, 1987.

Editor, Best American Short Stories, 1994. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Editor, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. New York, Vintage, 1994.

Editor, Writers Harvest 3. New York, Dell, 2000.

*

Critical Studies:

Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff by Daniel D. Challener, New York, Garland, 1997.

Tobias Wolff comments:

Writers are the worst interpreters of their own work. If their fiction is any good, it should be saying things they weren't aware of.

* * *

Tobias Wolff writes with a sparsity and clarity typical of the voices of the best writers of his generation, realists of the ilk of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, William Kittredge, Jayne Anne Phillips, Mary Robison, and Stephanie Vaughan, all of whom are represented in Matters of Life and Death, an anthology of contemporary American short stories which Wolff put together in the early 1980s. In explaining his choices, Wolff wrote that in the stories "I heard something that I couldn't ignore, some notes of menace or hope or warning or appeal or awe; and in the matter of the stories themselves, the people who inhabit them and what they do, I saw something that I couldn't look away from."

The same should be said of Wolff's work. Every story, the novella The Barracks Thief, and the memoir This Boy's Life go right to the heart. Nowhere is there a slack page; Wolff writes as if each work were the only one he will every publish. He has admitted in interviews to being a relentless reviser. The Barracks Thief, scarcely a novella, was once a manuscript of several hundred pages. In the stories collected in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World, character development is quick and vivid, background material rare, as if Wolff has always kept clear in his mind Hemingway's axiom that stories get their energy from what is left unsaid. The result is a rather modest output. After fifteen years of publishing, all of Wolff's work could easily be contained in a single volume of 600 pages. But this hypothetical volume would say as much if not more than any other conceivable work about the generation of American men born in the decade after World War II.

The men in Wolff's stories have fathers and uncles who fought and won in the good war; their own war is a squalid and ambiguous affair that went on and on in a very hot place, and the themes of these fictions are deceit, betrayal, failure, and self-loathing, and the queer persistence of fellow-feeling in spite of all of these. Wolff was himself a member of the Special Forces and had a tour of duty in Vietnam. Yet nowhere has he writtennot yet, anywayof combat or his service in Southeast Asia. Instead the war is insinuated, providing the future with menace, or the past with ambivalence and depth. In other words, unconfronted, unobtruded, the Vietnam war remains in Wolff's fiction what it is for most men of his age, non-combatants as well as soldiers, the great shaping force that can never quite be understood, much less expunged. Consequently, many of Wolff's characters seemed surprised who they have become, survivors of a catastrophe who have become dependent on safety. As the narrator of The Barracks Thief puts it:

I didn't set out to be what I am I'm a conscientious man, a responsible man, maybe even what you'd call a good manI hope so. But I'm also a careful man, addicted to comfort, with an eye for the safe course. My neighbors appreciate me because they know I will never give my lawn over to the cultivation of marijuana, or send my wife weeping to their doorsteps at three o'clock in the morning, or expect them to be my friends. I am content with my life most of the time.

Comfort, however, scarcely describes the experience of reading Wolff's fiction. Instead, the reader is made uneasy by characters whose actions, often for the best of motives, lead them into error and excess. In "Hunters in the Snow" Tub and Frank rediscover their friendship while Kenny, bleeding or freezing to death, lies neglected in the back of the pick-up truck. In "Coming Attractions," a sister risks her life trying to get a bicycle out of the deep end of a swimming pool. In "Dessert Breakdown, 1968" a man nearly abandons his wife and children on a whim. And in "The Rich Brother," a man leaves his ineffectual younger brother by the side of a highway in the cold and an almost absolute darkness. Driving all of Wolff's fiction is the dynamism derived from the irreconcilable difference between who we might like to be and who our actions reveal us to be.

In This Boy's Life, an autobiography of his adolescence, Wolff writes "It takes a childish or corrupt imagination to make symbols of other people," and the comment affords an important insight into Wolff's aesthetic and ethical aims. For all of their economy, Wolff's works are never glib or shallow. They are never didactic, and the characters who inhabit them speak and act on their own in settings that are precisely and efficiently conceived. The plots move quickly, and since characters are never arrested and made to stand for something, reading Wolff is a headlong sort of business, wholly free of the artificial and emphatic closures of more ponderous writing. Invariably Wolff leaves the fate of his characters open. This can be exhilarating; however oblique the strike, we feel that we have made contact with the honest sufferings and joys of real people.

Mark A.R. Facknitz

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