Tobias Wolff Short Fiction Analysis
Tobias Wolff is an outstanding contemporary craftsman of the American short story. Working slowly, sometimes taking months and countless drafts, he polishes each story into an entertaining, gemlike work that reads with deceptive ease. He has said, in interviews, that he needs time to get to know his characters but that the finished story no longer holds any surprises for him. For the reader, the result is full of surprises, insights, humor, and other line-by-line rewards, particularly in character portrayal and style. The influences on his work—his friend Raymond Carver and earlier masters such as Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor—indicate the company Wolff intends to keep.
No overriding theme, message, or agenda seems to unite Wolff’s work—only his interest in people, their quirks, their unpredictability, their strivings and failings, and their predicaments as human beings. Despite their dishonesty and drug use, most of his characters fall within the range of a very shaky middle-class respectability or what passes for it in contemporary America. Although most of them do not hope for much, many still have troubles separating their fantasies from reality. Despite their dried-up souls, vague remnants of Judeo-Christian morality still rattle around inside their rib cages, haunting them with the specter of moral choice (Wolff himself is a Catholic). It is perhaps emblematic that a considerable amount of action in his stories occurs inside automobiles hurtling across the landscape (except when they break down or fly off the road).
Wolff himself has called his stories autobiographical (just as his memoirs are somewhat fictionalized), but this seems true only in a broad sense. Wolff goes on to say that many of his characters reflect aspects of himself and that he sometimes makes use of actual events. According to Wolff, “The Liar” mirrors himself as a child: The story is about a boy who reacts to his father’s death by becoming a pathological liar. A story that appears to make use of an actual event is “The Missing Person,” about a priest who, to impress his drinking buddy, fabricates a story about killing a man with his bare hands. Before he knows it, the buddy has spread the news to the nuns. Wolff related a similar story about himself in an Esquire magazine article (“Raymond Carver Had His Cake and Ate It Too,” September, 1989), recalling his friend Carver after Carver’s death from cancer. In a tale-swapping competition with Carver, known for his bouts with alcohol, Wolff bested his friend by fabricating a story about being addicted to heroin; aghast, Carver repeated the story, and people began regarding Wolff with pity and sorrow.
“Our Story Begins”
A truly autobiographical story titled “Our Story Begins” (a double or triple entendre) probably gives a more typical view of Wolff’s sources of inspiration: uncanny powers of observation and a good ear. In this story, Charlie, an aspiring writer, who barely supports himself by working as a busboy in a San Francisco restaurant, is discouraged and about ready to quit. On his way home through one of those notorious San Francisco fogs, however, he stops at a coffeehouse. There he overhears a conversation between a woman, her husband, and another man. The man tells a story about a Filipino taxi driver’s fantastic love obsession with a local woman, and the trio are identified as a love triangle themselves. Charlie soaks it all in with his cappuccino, then, newly inspired by these riches, heads home through the fog. Wolff brings these stories to a close with a patented ending: A Chinese woman carrying a live lobster rushes past, and a foghorn in the bay is likewise an omen that “at any moment anything might be revealed.”
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
Wolff’s patented ending is an updated open version of O. Henry’s surprise ending, which wrapped things up with a plot twist. Wolff’s endings are usually accomplished with a modulation of style, a sudden opening out into revelation, humor, irony, symbolism, or lyricism. Such an ending is illustrated by “Next Door,” the first story of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. A quiet couple are scandalized by the goings-on next door, where everybody screams and fights and the husband and wife make love standing up against the refrigerator. To drown out these raucous neighbors, the couple turns up their television volume, goes to bed, and watches the film El Dorado. Lying next to his wife, the husband becomes sexually aroused, but she is unresponsive. The seemingly uneventful story ends when the husband suddenly imagines how he would rewrite the movie—an ambiguous ending that suggests both his desire for some of the lusty, disorderly life next door (and in the movie) and the quiet, passionless fate that he is probably doomed to endure.
The next story, “Hunters in the Snow,” perhaps Wolff’s best, is much more eventful and has an unforgettable ending. The story is set in the wintry fields of the Northwest, where three deer hunters, supposedly old buddies, rib and carp and play practical jokes on one another. The ringleader, Kenny, who is driving his old truck, is unmerciful to Frank and especially to Tub. Tub, however, wreaks a terrible revenge when one of Kenny’s practical jokes backfires and, through a misunderstanding, Tub shoots him, inflicting a gruesome gut wound. Frank and Tub throw Kenny into the back of the pickup truck and head off over unfamiliar country roads for the hospital fifty miles away. After a while, Frank and Tub become cold from the snow blowing through a hole in the windshield and stop at a tavern for a beer, where they strike up a sympathetic conversation with each other. Leaving the directions to the hospital on the table, they hit the road...
(The entire section is 2407 words.)