Wolff, Tobias (Jonathan Ansell)

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WOLFF, Tobias (Jonathan Ansell)

Nationality: American. Born: Birmingham, Alabama, 19 June 1945. Education: Oxford University, B.A. 1972, M.A. 1975; Stanford University, 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. Beginning 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.


Short Stories

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. 1981; as Hunters in the Snow, 1982.

The Barracks Thief (novella) . 1984.

Back in the World. 1985.

The Night in Question: Stories. 1996.


Ugly Rumours. 1975.

This Boy's Life: A Memoir. 1989.

In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War. 1994.

Two Boys and a Girl (for children). 1996.

Editor, Matters of Life and Death: New American Short Stories. 1983.

Editor, The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. 1987.

Editor, Best American Short Stories, 1994. 1994.

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


Critical Study:

Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction by James Hannah, 1996.

* * *

Although a childhood memoir, This Boy's Life (1989), brought Tobias Wolff more attention than anything he has written before or since, his literary career remains committed to the short story. The reason for this probably has much to do with the form's lyric compression of narrative impact, which suits his apparent appetite for confronting ethical dilemmas in a modern reality, where moral confusion and plentiful options drive people into hurting one another and themselves.

Wolff's maiden collection, for instance, In the Garden of North American Martyrs, revolves around a title story in which Mary, its unmarried academic protagonist, must face a mean betrayal by a narcissistic friend, who has encouraged her to apply for a position at her own "famous college in upstate New York," knowing full well she would not be hired: "She had been brought here to satisfy a rule." Hopes high and in desperate need of a job, Mary must endure a meaningless interview and, far worse, is expected to deliver a demonstration lecture to an audience of professors and students.

Instead of reading the lecture supplied by her friend, however, she talks about the "cruel" but powerful Iroquois nation of the region, graphically describing the torture said Indians once administered to fearless Jesuits, who died warning their tormentors to be kind and just. The lesson is politically apt, and the story is quite disturbing, even memorable, although too neatly symbolic. A final tale, "The Liar," somewhat complicates the collection's moral orientation by presenting its alter-ego narrator as an inveterate and morbid fabricator.

Like James Joyce's nascent artist's reaction to his mother's death, the sixteen-year-old Catholic boy in "The Liar" had not cried at his father's funeral, although he did close his eyes in school a few days later, refusing to open them until taken home to his mother. In the last scene the boy is seen on a bus, pretending to have been raised in Tibet, where his missionary parents were murdered by the Communists, and singing what is supposed to be a Tibetan tune to his mesmerized fellow passengers. This mocking, blue-collar sense of humor meanders, with good effect, through most of Wolff's fiction.

A second collection, Back in the World (1985), is similarly rigged to sift the bottom waters of American society (often located in California) for lost moral gold. The most touching and insightful of stories, "Coming Attractions," opens the book. Its sad protagonist, a teenage girl named Jean who is closing up the local movie house where she works late one night and waiting for the owner to drive her home, movingly incarnates the existential dislocation inflicted upon so many of our children by broken homes. Lonely and fearful, she calls her distant father but has to speak to a hated stepmother instead, then calls home and wakes her brother, who groggily tells of a bicycle left in the pool that has been promised to him if he can remove it.

In desperation, Jean finally calls a stranger and confesses to bad behavior, including an affair with her teacher. Once home early that morning, she dives again and again to try and wrestle the bike to the surface of the pool. Her redemptive act contrasts dramatically with the flight of Marty in "Sister," who cannot connect with the self-involved men in her lower-middle-class world and is left alone in her apartment to imagine her brother and his friends returning from a pleasure-filled day of hunting geese, then celebrating in a tavern, their dogs abandoned in their cars, whimpering and watching, like she, "the bright door the men had closed behind them."

Reflecting his own experiences in Vietnam, which he wrote about in another memoir, In Pharaoh's Army, Wolff frequently introduces characters who have been permanently altered by war or army life in general. In "The Poor Are Always with Us," for example, a highly successful, morally upright young man clashes with a pathetic yet dangerous veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome and learns about the high costs of the war and his own self-isolating behavior. Another story, "Soldier's Joy," takes place in the peace-time army and climaxes with a Vietnamese soldier shooting another soldier to protect the protagonist, a Vietnam vet who cannot adjust to life after the war. Effective as it is, there is a sense of manipulation in "Soldier's Joy" and the other war-related stories that sometimes undercuts their undeniable gritty realism and psychological acuity.

More effective, at least in terms of mining deeper levels of perception, are several stories that enter the marital battlefield to pursue Wolff's moral imperative, although none ever quite match the rippling aftershocks unleashed by "Coming Attractions." Of these, "Say Yes" is tersely on the mark in depicting a childless marriage in which the husband cannot escape from the reality of being married to a stranger, whom he must constantly placate without understanding why. But it is "Leviathan" that exposes the crisis of American marriages built on and broken apart by notions of personal freedom and a loss of belief. Its two couples (in second marriages) sniff cocaine and play at being children together as a way of holding off life's emptiness and their relationship failures.

The resolution of "Leviathan" arrives when Helen, its sharply intelligent, Catholic-raised protagonist, tells of a good deed she performed by calming a retarded man during a particularly perilous whale-watch excursion. At story's end, her egocentric new mate is discovered fast asleep, but the other couple consoles her as she prepares new "snow" for them, transforming them into carolers, and herself into their Madonna—it's her birthday. Again, however, Wolff's didactic urge, adamantly Catholic in quest of salvation, blurs his keen lens, as it does also in "The Rich Brother," which terminates the collection in an almost parable fashion.

There was an eleven-year gap between Back in the World and Wollf's third collection, The Night in Question (1996), but the fluent authority of his conversational style and obsessive concern with moral quandaries have hardly dimmed. Wars and academia are still central staging areas—Wolff teaches at Syracuse University—along with the crippling pain people cause the ones dearest to them. The title story, which relies upon a story-within-a-story formula, lacks sufficient weight to anchor the collection, but the fierce sister-brother relationship and the abusive father scenario map familiar Wolff territory.

The purest war saga in The Night in Question is "Casualty," and the narrative is handled with practiced ease as B. D. (short for Benjamin Delano) and Ryan, the two remaining veterans in their company, are forced to deal with a new lieutenant, whom Ryan jokingly mocks and defies ("I just can't help it"), with the result that he gets sent on ambush detail, prodded into volunteering by the officer, despite being six weeks away from going home. B. D.'s feelings for Ryan, a mixture of anger, amusement, and pity, are at the crux of the story, which resolves when B. D. tells his girlfriend about Ryan and realizes he was glad that Ryan got killed, which makes him understand how deep his grief really was. A coda told from the point of view of the nurse tending Ryan at his death works well to convolute the experience.

"Flyboys" also orbits around grief, as a boy narrator recalls his encounter with an unhappy family. The brother of his friend Freddy had been killed in a motorcycle accident, which affected the mother in particular: " I had never seen such sorrow; it appalled me." Freddy himself developed asthma, which severed their friendship, and at the conclusion of the story, the narrator decides against letting Freddy share in a plane-building project. Fear generates meanness, as in so many Wolff tales.

The rest of the stories in The Night in Question tend toward the conventional, as if abbreviating life into art, with the exception of "The Life of the Body." Its protagonist, Wiley, an English teacher at a private school, falls in love with a woman in a bar and gets beaten up for approaching her afterwards. He lies to his students about his injury, claiming to have been mugged by two men, whom they, expectedly, assume were black, and lectures them on "Benito Careno" and "Bartleby, The Scrivener," emphasizing Melville's protest against the "commodification of humanity." They do not get the message. Their prejudice is reinforced by his fake mugging, and he returns to the chase, "words" defeating honor.

Whatever the ultimate limitations of Wolff's craft, his short stories, several of which seem destined to enter the canon, have provided an artful rendering of America's various voices as it wrestles with the old themes of love and death under the gun of fading certainties about humanity's very worth.

—Edward Butscher

See the essay on "The Liar."