Although Tobias Wolff is probably best known as the author of the memoir This Boy’s Life (1989), an account of his youthful struggles with a brutal stepfather that was made into a 1993 film starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, his critical reputation rests largely on his three collections of short stories. Our Story Begins includes stories from each of these books, as well as ten new ones.
His first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), was well received by critics, several stories becoming favorite anthology pieces read widely by university students. The title story centers on a female history professor who goes for a job interview, only to find out that she has been invited merely to satisfy an affirmative-action requirement. When she presents a public lecture as part of the interview, she ignores her prepared paper and launches into a passionate account of how the Iroquois once captured two Jesuit priests in the area, graphically describing the tortures they suffered. She quotes one of the priests who, just before his agonizing death, tells his torturers to mend their lives. When the professorial audience tries to shout her down, she continues to exhort them to turn from power to love, to walk humbly. She even turns off her hearing aid so she will not be distracted. The story is an example of what Wolff has called “winging it,” which he describes as a kind of “lifting off, letting go,” listening to the voice within and speaking with the “magic of that voice.”
Wolff’s most famous example of “winging it” is the concluding story of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, “The Liar,” for it describes a sixteen-year-old boy who creates his own fictional world, precipitated by the death of his father, with whom the boy identifies because he coped with his fears by telling lies. The story ends with a poetic scene on a bus trip to Los Angeles, during which the boy tells his fellow passengers that he works with refugees from Tibet. When a woman asks him to speak some Tibetan, the others passengers lean back in their seats and close their eyes, while the boy, who knows no Tibetan, sings to them “in what was surely an ancient and holy tongue.” The story is a fiction-writer’s manifesto, a lyrical evocation about the human need to create an imaginative reality that bonds people together even as it asserts one’s own unique identity.
“Hunters in the Snow,” another favorite anthology piece from Wolff’s first collection, is a caricature of the macho-male buddy story. Tubby is the butt of jokes that his name suggests, stumbling clumsily with hidden snacks falling out of his hunting garb. Kenny is the bullying, sadistic practical joker. Frank is the central consciousness, the philosophic one, who talks of “centering” and going with the “forces” in the natural world, but who has romantic illusions of escaping a loveless marriage by running off with the baby sitter. This comedy of errors culminates when Kenny says he hates a dog they encounter and then shoots it. When he turns to Tub and says he hates him, too, the frightened Tubby shoots Kenny in the stomach. As Tub and Frank make comically clumsy attempts to get Kenny to the hospital in the back of their pickup, they stop at a cafe for coffee and get into a satiric conversation about friendship and being “really in love,” while Kenny is freezing outside. They both get a big laugh when Frank reveals to Tub that the dog’s owner asked Kenny to shoot it. Because of further comic mistakes and other stops, it seems clear that they will never get Kenny to the hospital in time to save him. However, that seems less important than Tub coming clean about his obsessive eating and Frank spouting still more clichés about love and friendship. The final joke is the last line, when, as Kenny mumbles he is going to the hospital, the reader discovers that he is wrong, for the two men had “taken a different turn a long way back.”
In Wolff’s second collection of stories, Back in the World (1985), “Soldier’s Joy” focuses on the search for camaraderie in the army, as one character insists that the Vietnam War was a fulfilling experience for him because it provided a home where he was with friends. Being back in the States, or “back in the world,” he says, lacks order and meaning. The final story in the collection, “The Rich Brother,” another frequent anthology favorite, is, Wolff has said, the closest thing to a fable he has ever written. The prodigal...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)