Wolff emerged as a short-story writer in the generation following the authors of so-called experimental fiction, such as Robert Coover, Donald Barthleme, and John Barth. His stories, along with those of his contemporary Raymond Carver, were less concerned with form and structure and more interested in questions about moral choice in daily life. In this respect, Wolff follows a tradition established by earlier American short-story writers going back through John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and such European predecessors as Anton Chekhov and James Joyce. However, unlike these writers, Wolff’s moral questions rarely revolve around adultery or religion; instead they examine the grave difficulty people often have in telling the truth. It could be said that Wolff’s great subject is the many reasons for lying and all the ripples of consequence that come from each lie. In his memoirs and in Old School, Wolff’s protagonists eventually recognize the effects of their lying and accept any punishments (such as being expelled from school) with some humility. In the short stories, the recognition of error is more often left to the reader, though there are exceptions, as in “An Incident in the Life of Professor Brooke” (1980), in which a man who has been judgmental toward a colleague realizes that his own conduct deserves similar scrutiny.
Many stories touch on the theme of social class, or more specifically, social climbing. Although Wolff spent much of his youth in the blue-collar town of Chinook, Washington, he was aware that his father had attended prestigious schools and aspired to an Ivy League lifestyle. In fact, Wolff’s brother Geoffrey (who lived with their father after the parents’ divorce) attended Princeton University and encouraged his younger brother to apply to a private boarding school. Once there, Wolff encountered evidence of the class stratification and anti-Semitism that becomes an important theme in Old School and in short stories, such as “Smokers” (1976), which have a prep school setting.
In general, the settings of Wolff’s stories mirror the stages of his own life: the rural, blue-collar world of Chinook, the elite prep school environment, the military experience in Vietnam, and finally, life as a professor of English. Despite the variety of these settings, the themes and narrative style of the works remain very similar. The voice of the narrator often appears objective but in fact is always ready to reveal the damning detail about both protagonist and antagonist. For example, this dynamic characterizes much of This Boy’s Life in its portrayal of the rebellious Jack and his bullying stepfather, Dwight.
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”
First published: 1976 (collected in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, 1981)
Type of work: Short story
A depressed college professor delivers a startling lecture when she discovers that she has no chance of being offered the position she desired.
“In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” tells the story of Mary, a college professor who has grown increasingly depressed since her longtime employer, Brandon College, closed. At Brandon, Mary made herself as agreeable as possible and rarely expressed her own opinions. Now marooned at an inadequate school in Oregon, Mary is thrilled to be invited by a former colleague, Louise, to apply for a job at Louise’s university in upstate New York. When Mary arrives for her interview, however, Louise’s behavior is unsettling. At the last minute she unexpectedly tells Mary she must give a lecture after her interview. Later, Mary discovers that at least one female candidate must be brought in for every open position. She rightly suspects that she has been misled by Louise into thinking there was a chance for her to get the job. Stunned by the betrayal, she improvises a dramatic lecture that details the tortures inflicted on two Jesuit priests by the Iroquois tribe. Despite protests by the faculty in the audience, Mary turns off her hearing aid as she begins to narrate the religious advice of the dying Jesuit, including the admonition to “turn from power to love.” Her story rebukes the cold brutality of Louise and the hiring committee who invited her for a sham interview. She has finally learned that being agreeable ultimately serves little purpose. Her shocking monologue pushes the genre of the story from realism to parable.
The Barracks Thief
First published: 1984
Type of work: Novella
The bond among three army recruits stationed at Fort Bragg during the Vietnam War is shattered when one becomes a thief.
The Barracks Thief begins with a short prologue introducing the character who will narrate much of the tale. Philip Bishop, the elder son of a marriage that has ended badly, impulsively enlists in the Army, leaving behind his worried mother and vulnerable younger brother. At this point, the story shifts into the first person to recount Philip’s military experiences. Philip meets Hubbard and Lewis when he arrives at Fort Bragg. Ignored by the rest of the company, the three newcomers reluctantly become companions and form a bond when they are assigned to guard an ammunition dump together. They each reveal something about their prior lives at home. Hubbard focuses on his two closest buddies and their shared love of cars. He confesses that he could never kill anyone and worries about being sent to Vietnam. In contrast, Lewis presents himself as a tough guy and experienced womanizer. He makes light of an incident where he hesitated to rappel down a cliff during training exercises. Lewis was particularly offended when the sergeant on duty called him “Tinkerbell.” Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of a car bearing two local policemen. Warned that a forest fire might ignite the dump, the soldiers rudely turn away the men, and recklessly decide to stand by their post, developing an illusory sense of power and bravery.
Soon after, some men in the company are dispatched to Oakland to await assignments overseas. One day they are assigned crowd-control duty during an antiwar protest and find themselves rattled by facing down people their own age who despise the idea of the Vietnam War. After the protest, Lewis invites the others to a Bob Hope film but they decline. In the following days, three wallets are stolen in the barracks. The third victim of theft is Hubbard, who is punched in the face by his attacker. Although he is not seriously hurt, the injury hits hard because Hubbard has just learned that his two best friends from home were killed in an accident. At this point, the narrative shifts back to third person, and the focus becomes specifically on Lewis, who decides to go to the film by himself. He gets a ride with an elementary teacher who works at the post. The teacher helps him apply calamine lotion to his swollen hand, and they have a quiet moment of connection. Later, during the film, Lewis becomes enraged...
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