Wolff, Tobias (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Tobias Wolff 1945-
(Full name Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff) American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Wolff's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 64.
Wolff has been a preeminent force on the American literary landscape since receiving the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novella The Barracks Thief (1984). Often compared to Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, Wolff's prose offers stark, ambivalent portrayals of contemporary existence that often function as humorous exposés of social hypocrisy. In his short fiction, Wolff constructs narratives around critical events in the lives of his characters, generally failures or discontented individuals who find themselves at a moral crossroads. Wolff expanded this technique in his memoirs, This Boy's Life (1989) and In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994), using his childhood and military experiences to demonstrate how seemingly traumatic events can have a lasting effect on one's development as a human being.
Born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, Wolff has an older brother, Geoffrey, who also became a writer. His parents, Rosemary and Arthur, divorced when he was ten years old. Geoffrey chose to remain with his father, while Wolff moved with his mother to Chinook, Washington, outside of Seattle, where she married a house-painter named Dwight. An abusive and violent stepfather, Dwight became a major figure in Wolff's first memoir This Boy's Life. In rebellion to Dwight's strict household rules, Wolff began lying and committing acts of petty thievery as a teenager. During high school, he was awarded a scholarship to the Hill School, a noted boarding school, but was later expelled. Wolff enlisted in the Army and served from 1964 to 1968 during the Vietnam War as a lieutenant with the Special Forces. Upon his return from Vietnam, Wolff was accepted into Oxford University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1972 and an M.A. in 1975. He also earned an M.A. from Stanford in 1978. Wolff has worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and held academic posts at Goddard College, Arizona State University, Temple University, and Syracuse University. He has also taught literature and creative writing at Stanford University. In addition to his PEN/Faulkner Award for The Barracks Thief, Wolff was nominated for the 1994 National Book Award for This Boy's Life and was awarded England's Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone's Prize for nonfiction.
Ugly Rumours (1975), Wolff's only novel, describes the experiences of two American soldiers, Woermer and Grubbs, as they graduate from the Army's officer-training program and are shipped off to the Vietnam War. The collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981) features twelve stories that focus upon lonely characters facing the consequences of past decisions. In the title story, an overly obsequious university professor is interviewed for a position at a prestigious college in the East. When it is revealed that she was never seriously considered for the opening, the professor speaks out eloquently and controversially for the first time in her career. In “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke,” a man discovers how far removed his values are from the rest of society when he realizes that he is unable to positively affect the lives of others through his work in academia. “Face to Face” depicts the failure of a romantic weekend vacation for a couple who have become increasingly isolated from each other. The Barracks Thief concerns three American paratroopers stationed in North Carolina during the Vietnam War. The soldiers bond through their shared temptation to allow an approaching forest fire to consume the ammunition dump they are guarding. Told retrospectively by a soldier named Bishop, the novella explores the question of whether it is better to live a short and tragic life rather than suffering through a long and meaningless existence. A majority of the stories in Back in the World (1985), Wolff's second collection of short fiction, follow American Vietnam War veterans as they search for clarity and purpose after their tours of duty. The other stories in the volume include “Coming Attractions”—in which a lonely fifteen-year-old girl makes phone calls that reveal her lack of close relationships—and “The Missing Person”—in which a priest named Father Leo discovers that his parish seems to have little use for his spiritual guidance.
This Boy's Life recounts the details of Wolff's life from age ten, when he and his mother traveled from Florida to Utah, through age eighteen, when he enlisted in the Army. The memoir offers a humorous and affectionate portrayal of Wolff's often difficult childhood experiences, such as his attempts at forming a relationship with Dwight, his abusive and domineering stepfather. One of the major recurring themes throughout This Boy's Life involves the difficulty young men face as they struggle to establish their masculine identities. This Boy's Life is often compared to The Duke of Deception, the acclaimed adolescent memoir of Wolff's brother, Geoffrey. In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, a continuation of Wolff's memoirs, describes the one-year tour of duty Wolff spent in the Mekong Delta village of My Tho, Vietnam. Divided into thirteen “episodes,” In Pharaoh's Army focuses primarily on Wolff's internal development rather than his experiences in military battles. Although Wolff never specifically addresses the atrocity and carnage he witnessed in Vietnam, he does make several allusions to the violence of warfare in his almost mundane stories of life in the Army. Wolff portrays himself as an immature young man in the beginning of the memoir, asserting that his experiences in Vietnam allowed him to grow and find direction in life. The Night in Question (1996) collects fifteen short stories that follow characters searching for the hidden meanings behind their day-to-day lives. In “The Chain,” a man seeking revenge after a dog attacks his daughter gratefully accepts a friend's offer to kill the animal. “The Other Miller” describes a boy whose plan to punish his mother by joining the Army proves futile. “Mortals” centers around a man who, eager to know what his friends say about him, sends his own obituary to the local newspaper. The other stories variously follow a book critic who is shot and killed while standing in line at the bank, a young woman who visits her father after his nervous breakdown, and a devoted sister struggling with her brother's obsession with endlessly reciting a biblical sermon. In addition to his own short fiction, Wolff has edited several short story collections, including The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories (1993), The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (1994), Best New American Voices 2000 (2000), and Writers Harvest 3 (2000).
Although Ugly Rumours has received largely unfavorable reviews since its original publication, Wolff's subsequent works have garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. Reviewers have praised his inclusion of idiosyncratic, naturalistic details as well as his insight into the lives of a diverse range of characters. Many critics have commended the stories in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs for the wealth of metaphorical meaning behind Wolff's simple and natural language. Richard Orodenker and Welch D. Everman have noted that, “[Wolff's] stories' complex levels of meaning are covered by a delicate veneer. His metaphors reach deep into the imagination.” His award-winning The Barracks Thief has been lauded for its realism and tolerance, particularly Wolff's refusal to moralize or pass judgment on his characters. However, some reviewers have faulted Wolff's short fiction as gimmicky and have argued that he often neglects to resolve his overly-complex plots. Although his fiction has occasionally received mixed reviews, Wolff's memoirs have attracted almost universal acclaim. This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army have been consistently praised for their humor, insight, and emotional depth, with critics commending Wolff's ability to affectionately portray the hardships of youth. Jeff Danziger has stated that, “Few authors have reported their early years, wasted, halcyon, or otherwise, with the same suspense, longing, loathing, and glorious humor. The writing [in This Boy's Life] is clear and merciless, and the chapters are as fluid and perfect as anything I've read in years.”
Ugly Rumours (novel) 1975
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (short stories) 1981; also published as Hunters in the Snow, 1982
Matters of Life and Death: New American Stories [editor and author of introduction] (short stories) 1983
The Barracks Thief (novella) 1984; also published as The Barracks Thief and Other Stories
Back in the World (short stories) 1985
A Doctor's Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov [editor] (short stories) 1988
*The Stories of Tobias Wolff (short stories) 1988
This Boy's Life: A Memoir (memoirs) 1989
The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories [editor] (short stories) 1993
Best American Short Stories [editor] (short stories) 1994
In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (memoirs) 1994
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories [editor and author of introduction] (short stories) 1994
The Night in Question (short stories) 1996
Best New American Voices 2000 [editor and author of introduction] (short stories) 2000
Writers Harvest 3 [editor and author of introduction] (short stories) 2000
*Includes Hunters in the...
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SOURCE: Cunningham, Valentine. “The Weight of War.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3810 (14 March 1975): 269.
[In the following excerpt, Cunningham accuses Wolff of treating the horrors of war lightly in Ugly Rumours.]
Ugly Rumours is less long, more comfortable to read, and a more shaped fiction: significantly, a lot of it takes place away from combat zones. Two buddies, the eternal fixer Woermer and the bear-like Grubbs, are followed through officer-training to a cushy number Woermer and his chums have fixed up in a safe-ish Vietnam village. There their careers and attitudes develop and diverge, until, back in the United States, they will never meet again. Savage ironies are duly observed, and in particular cinema-bred heroics are bloodily shot down. And the frightening things of Vietnam—the army of limbless veterans abandoned to their fates by the South Vietnamese government, for example—are broached seriously enough. But on the whole the touch is jokier; and if the ending proves the war was by no means a giggle, too much of the novel prefers to avoid treating gravities gravely. And when it tries to focus its religious theme about God and suffering it doesn't quite manage to bring it off. The blurring is understandable, given the resistance of the war's horrors to any shapely thematic intentions. Formal ambition, usually praiseworthy in a novel, comes to seem less appropriate to the...
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SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. “American Short Fiction Today.” New England Review 4, no. 3 (spring 1982): 486-88.
[In the following excerpt, Allen praises the stories in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs for their depth and power.]
Tobias Wolff, whose In the Garden of the North American Martyrs is the best of the individuals' books reviewed here, is a really rather frighteningly accomplished writer. The twelve quietly realistic, beautifully detailed and subtle stories collected here are about moments of crisis in the lives of tightly coiled, introspective, self-distrusting (sometimes self-despising) people. Though he's equally good with both men and women, Wolff sometimes strikes false notes (his characterization of the victimized teacher in the title story) or waxes almost-sentimental (the golden-honeymooners in “Maiden Voyage”). Usually, however, his dramatic directness and eye for colloquial detail bring utter conviction to his stories' forceful situations: a solitary driver's new understanding, following his adventures with a woman hitchhiker, of his imprisoned life (“Passengers”); a move to the country, and a sequence of unforeseen, unmanageable dangers (“Poaching”); a minor automobile accident that triggers visions of a world everywhere unsafe, peopled by robbers and killers (“Worldly Goods”). In Wolff's finest story, “An Episode in the Life of Professor...
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SOURCE: Orodenker, Richard, and Welch D. Everman. “The Art of the Story.” North American Review 267, no. 2 (June 1982): 60.
[In the following review, Orodenker and Everman assert that In the Garden of the North American Martyrs illuminates the essence of human emotion with a provocative and original voice.]
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs is Tobias Wolff's stunning first collection of short fiction. Through these gracefully evoked tales, Wolff touches the heart of the human condition and speaks in a voice that is sincere, original yet familiar—a voice that sounds as if it must last.
His careful, simple prose style is often deceptive. His stories' complex levels of meaning are covered by a delicate veneer. His metaphors reach deep into the imagination. In “Next Door,” Wolff moves subtly in and out of the lives of his character. The sounds of domestic intranquility coming from next door lead the main character to think about other proximities, other geographies, which include the body of his invalid wife. He begins to think about those places that are not on the map, lost cities, “white trees in a land where no one has ever been.” Perhaps all of these are really no further away from him than next door.
The characters on whom Wolff focuses manage to gain our sympathies, but slowly, slowly, Wolff reveals them to themselves and then...
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SOURCE: Flower, Dean. “Fiction Chronicle.” Hudson Review 35, no. 2 (summer 1982): 278-79.
[In the following excerpt, Flower offers a mixed assessment of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, lamenting Wolff's use of both physical and mental “gratuitous cruelty” in the stories.]
Tobias Wolff's short stories [in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs] depend so heavily on dialogue and limited points of view that they remind me of the early J. D. Salinger. Wolff has a fine ear for the clichés of hippie wisdom, the jargon of academic types, the formulas of parental criticism, and the evasions of the unhappily married. Children appear frequently in these stories, but the focus is more often on insecure and immature adults. The effect is less Salinger than, say, Raymond Carver, with its special emphasis on passivity and sublimation. Several of the stories are a delight to read aloud, notably “Passengers,” about a nervous young man who picks up a girl hitchhiking with guitar and large hairy dog, and “The Liar,” about a boy who fends off the world by his compulsive and usually morbid lying. But the immediately engaging and winning manner of Wolff's colloquial technique is deceptive. These stories repeatedly turn on moments of cruelty, cowardice, and impure guilt.
“Hunters in the Snow” features the sadistic Kenny, who teases his fat friend Tub to...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
SOURCE: Allen, Bruce. “Nam Book Year's Best.” Christian Science Monitor (7 June 1985): B7.
[In the following review, Allen compliments The Barracks Thief for its depth and verisimilitude.]
This remarkable short novel [The Barracks Thief], virtually unnoticed by reviewers (including this one) when it appeared last summer, was recently named the winner of the PEN Faulkner Award for the year's most distinguished work of American fiction. It is a more than worthy choice, and a powerful reminder to those of us who think we know the literary territory that every serious book has a claim on us, and that there really isn't any substitute for reading everything, or at least trying to.
The story begins in Seattle in the mid-1960s, focusing on a soon-to-be-broken family, the Bishops, and following the beginning military career of their eldest son, Philip, a confused and angry boy drifting away from family and toward nothing in particular. Philip joins the Army as a paratrooper trainee, and the quiet, rather flat omniscient narrative describes his basic training experiences in Georgia and North Carolina preparatory to a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Then, by way of a daring and surprising shift in viewpoint, we enter the mind and feelings of a parallel character—one of Philip's Army buddies. Their separate stories cohere, stunningly (though Wolff never forces the...
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SOURCE: DePietro, Thomas. “Minimalists, Moralists and Manhattanites.” Hudson Review 39, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 407-08.
[In the following excerpt, DePietro offers a negative assessment of Back in the World, calling the collection trendy and shallow.]
Tobias Wolff, a recent PEN/Faulkner Award winner, writes the kind of short fiction that we might call, to paraphrase Carver, the what-we-talk-about-when-we-have-nothing-to-say story. His new collection, Back in the World, exemplifies the trendy “minimalist” mode with its conspicuous absence of subject matter. These stories, for all their surface detail, might well be set anywhere, and that's the point: the middle-American metaphysicians who people Wolff's tales are often loners, far from home, friendless and in search of something, though neither they nor we know what they hope to find. Time and again, his characters reach a kind of pseudo-epiphany, as in “Sister,” a vignette in which a young woman named “Marty,” an Edgar Cayce enthusiast, goes out for an afternoon jog. Still slightly paranoid from the joint she smoked earlier, this believer in reincarnation has a spaced-out conversation with two guys in the park, and then almost gets run over chasing after a Frisbee. Back at her apartment steps, the lonely woman realizes there's no one to tell about this brush with death, nor anyone to assure her “that everything was going to be...
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SOURCE: Taylor, Linda. “Disarmingly Armed.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4414 (6-12 November 1987): 1227.
[In the following review, Taylor discusses the vulnerability and appeal of Wolff's characters in The Barracks Thief.]
When the father leaves, at the beginning of this novella [The Barracks Thief], family life is devastated at a stroke. The brothers, Philip and Keith, in their early teens, are instantly divided: Keith who cries all the time (“He could not stop grieving”) is on the road to becoming a loser; Philip becomes hardened—he “learns to get along without his father, mainly by despising him”.
In 1967, with the war in Vietnam at its height, Philip, whose grades are too bad for him to get into college, on impulse joins the army. His story is about rawness, symbolized by the nettle-stung right hand of Lewis, a fellow-recruit and the archetypal boorish soldier: “It was beet red and so bloated that you couldn't see his knuckles anymore. It looked like an enormous baby's hand.”
A raw recruit to the army and to life, Philip's character is defined by his actions towards and allegiances with others. He can't afford to support Keith in his misery because of his own frailty; he recognizes and resists Lewis's crudeness, revelling in his humiliation when found out as “the barracks thief”; he tentatively courts, and is spurned by, Hubbard, who...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Boy Lost, the Writer Found.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 January 1989): 3, 6.
[In the following review, Eder discusses Wolff's childhood and argues that, as a memoir, This Boy's Life is both artful and courageous.]
“The first thing in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.”
Oscar Wilde's remark is the epigraph to Tobias Wolff's memoir of growing up. On the surface, it is a suitable choice. Wolff masked and masqueraded his way through a childhood and adolescence that might otherwise have unhinged him.
More deeply, though, it is the opposite of suitable: and far better. This Boy's Life does not consort with its Wildean epigram: it wrenches it apart.
Wolff is the author of artful and highly crafted stories. The art in this memoir is its nakedness. It is stripped of pose: it has the courage to be a record, not of survival but of destruction.
Of course, we may know that Wolff is here, has married, teaches at Syracuse and has become a gifted and praised writer. But he lost himself before he ever found himself. This book is entirely about the loss, and not at all about any subsequent finding: save in the discipline and glitter of its pain.
Tobias' mother took him along when she left his father and went to live with a lover in Florida....
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SOURCE: Danziger, Jeff. “Revisiting One Boy's Days of Rage and Humor.” Christian Science Monitor (16 February 1989): 13.
[In the following review, Danziger praises Wolff for effectively blending adolescent rage with understated wit in This Boy's Life.]
After reading This Boy's Life, you'll probably want to read everything else Tobias Wolff has written. Few authors have reported their early years, wasted, halcyon, or otherwise, with the same suspense, longing, loathing, and glorious humor. The writing is clear and merciless, and the chapters are as fluid and perfect as anything I've read in years.
Growing up in the 1950s, Wolff goes with his mother to the Pacific Northwest. First she tries to make out on her own; later in a calamitous marriage with an erratically despotic character who makes young Wolff's life something to escape. He enters into wild friendships, petty crime, and general hebephrenia on a hilarious scale. Each experience is followed by doubt, fear of discovery, and finally learning the lesson of the experience just about backward.
Wolff grows up in Washington State in a company town in which the desolation is nearly palpable. Rural America, usually seen as an idyllic place to spend your youth, is often the exact opposite, since few teenagers are enamored of trees and lonely views. Slowly, and painfully, Wolff realizes his desires are callow...
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SOURCE: Dyer, Geoff. “Toby Runs Wild.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 47 (28 April 1989): 44.
[In the following review, Dyer admires Wolff's sense of timing, his eye for detail, and his linguistic precision in This Boy's Life.]
Insofar as generic judgments are possible the memoir is the lowest form of literary life, undertaken typically either by the Stephen Spenders of this world (that is by those who, though almost talentless, find themselves in proximity to abundant talent) or by those who can't think how else to set about writing (not everyone has a novel in them but everyone has a memoir). Prone to recollect rather than re-create, the memoirist suffers a serial compulsion to overuse one word: “would”—we would do this, then we'd do that, on Sundays we'd do something else. A wooden word, “would”, inimical to the creation of interesting sentences or vivid scenes and one which any novelist learns quickly to avoid.
Not surprisingly, the best memoirs tend to come from those who have already mastered more exacting forms of writing and tend to approach the condition of unfinished fiction. Tobias Wolff is probably America's most exacting maker of fiction, someone with a hard-won sense of the moment when a gesture, and all great fiction now resides in the realm of gesture, simultaneously contains and betrays the latent meaning of a life or scene. That skill—together...
(The entire section is 627 words.)
SOURCE: Clute, John. “States of Exile.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4493 (12-18 May 1989): 508.
[In the following excerpt, Clute remarks that This Boy's Life is a profound work despite its occasional tendency to subordinate the story to display its own adroitness.]
America is a land for the self-made man, the impostor, the teller of tales. From the beginnings of American literature, Huckleberry Finn and his brothers have been inventing themselves, lighting out for new territories they hope to carve in their own image; but a dark twin has always shadowed them, the confidence-man at the heart of the dream of freedom, for whom identity is a sleight-of-hand. As he grows into adulthood, Huck Finn must come to terms with that shadow; he must learn how to fabricate himself. Perhaps, like the young Tobias Wolff in This Boy's Life, he must become a liar.
Now in his forties, and the author of three cunning and successful volumes of fiction, Wolff knows a great deal about telling tales; and in his prefatory note he makes it clear that This Boy's Life, the story of a liar, is indeed a tale, “a book of memory” with “its own story to tell”; the shaping urgencies of re-creation—rather than any documentary proprieties—will govern its fabrication.
We begin in medias res and in flight. Tobias and his alluring mother have hit out from a bad...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
SOURCE: Rechy, John. “Discharging the First Duty of Life.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 November 1989): 12.
[In the following review, Rechy offers a positive assessment of This Boy's Life, analyzing its perspective on the nature of truth and memory.]
“Memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story,” Tobias Wolff writes in the acknowledgement page of his splendid This Boy's Life: A Memoir. But memory does not always tell a “truthful story,” and Wolff exemplifies this immediately: “… my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome.” This dichotomy is extended in the book's epigraph, from that master of artifice Oscar Wilde: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose.”
Life and art melded for Wilde, and all biography assumes a pose. To assert that it is possible to re-create more than an approximation of another's life, even one's own, may require the most enormous leap into willing suspension of disbelief. Fiction is more “truthful.” With unabashed honesty, it admits: This is an invention that I'm going to try to convince you is true.
By choosing the form of the memoir, Wolff keeps within the boundaries of his own “truth”—its chronology and geography, its protagonists, and what he remembers experiencing. But he gives his book its unique life by...
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SOURCE: Bailey, Peter J. “‘Why Not Tell the Truth?’: The Autobiographies of Three Fiction Writers.” Critique 32, no. 4 (summer 1991): 219-21.
[In the following excerpt, Bailey interprets This Boy's Life as a “meditation upon selfhood,” praising the style and narrative of the memoir.]
Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life: A Memoir is not a literary autobiography in the same sense that [John Updike's Self-Consciousness or Philip Roth's The Facts] are, largely because it is limited to Wolff's childhood and nowhere explicitly refers to his having become a fiction writer as an adult. Nonetheless, just as the Updike and Roth autobiographies arrive at their own definitions of the relationship between an author's life and his fiction and enact the conclusions drawn about that relationship, Wolff's book similarly represents an attempt to re-examine the prevailing assumptions about the differences between fact and fiction and to create a literary work in the interstices between the two.
That Wolff's childhood provided a store of material for autobiographical treatment is the most obvious point dramatized by This Boy's Life. Although the reader occasionally suspects the presence of dramatic heightening in the recalling of specific scenes, Wolff expressly disavows any such manipulation of his material. In the brief prefatory remarks that are his only...
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SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Catholicism in Contemporary American Fiction.” America 170, no. 17 (14 May 1994): 7, 11.
[In the following excerpt, Desmond examines Wolff's preoccupation with liars in “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” and The Barracks Thief, and comments on the influence of Catholicism on these works.]
Writing an essay about contemporary “Catholic” fiction may seem an exercise in creative anachronism. After all, more than 30 years ago Flannery O'Connor wrote: “The very term ‘Catholic’ novel is suspect, and people who are aware of its complications don't use it except in quotation marks. If I had to say what a ‘Catholic’ novel is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in the world of things and human relationships.” O'Connor added that such writing “will be a strange and, to many, perverse fiction … which gives us no picture of Catholic life, or of the religious experiences that are familiar to us, but I believe it will be Catholic fiction.”
Given such a latitudinarian perspective, the question might well be asked: What serious work of fiction is not “Catholic”? O'Connor affirmed that Catholic fiction is concerned with three central truths: the fall of humanity, redemption and judgment. But the past 30 years have witnessed a profound erosion in our communal belief...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Where the Chariots were Engulfed: Near-misses in the Vietnam War.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 October 1994): 3, 10.
[In the following review, Eder compliments Wolff's prose in In Pharaoh's Army, comparing it to other prominent literature about the Vietnam War.]
Imagine the button; the notorious and apocryphal button—it is a set of keys, I believe—that was available through the Cold War, and since, for unleashing Armageddon. Would it be black plastic like a doorbell buzzer? Or brushed steel like the on-off in an expensive sound system? Might it squeak when pressed? Would it bear the faint sheen of mayonnaise from a sandwich lunch at the desk—the President touching it lightly while thinking large and lonely thoughts?
It is the button or its equivalent that Tobias Wolff considers in these 13 pieces from the Vietnam War [in In Pharaoh's Army]. He approaches its horror somewhat as Hannah Arendt approached the horror of an Adolf Eichmann: through the banality, the small things, the casual human expedients which, hitched to a mighty killing technology and a distant and abstract purpose, caused such wreckage.
He does not deal with a My Lai massacre, as Tim O'Brien has just done in In the Lake of the Woods, but with the near-misses. There are civilians killed, as well as soldiers from both sides, but Wolff writes...
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SOURCE: Wolff, Tobias, and Nicholas A. Basbanes. “Tobias Wolff: ‘This Is … My Last Memoir.’” Publishers Weekly 241, no. 43 (24 October 1994): 45-6.
[In the following interview, Wolff discusses the craft behind writing his two memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War.]
The literary form of choice for Tobias Wolff is the short story, and by all accounts he has mastered it admirably. His work has been widely praised and duly recognized with honors including the O. Henry Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Rea Award. This fall, he has also edited The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (Vintage) and guest edited The Best American Short Stories 1994 (Houghton Mifflin).
But it is with two volumes of memoirs, This Boy's Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) and his new In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, to be released later this month by Knopf (Forecasts, Aug. 29), that Wolff is reaching what is undoubtedly a much wider audience. His first memoir became the basis of a 1993 coming-of-age movie of the same name starring Ellen Barkin and Robert De Niro, while the second enjoys the unusual distinction of being chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award two weeks before its official publication. (The winner will be announced in New York on November 19.)
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SOURCE: Hannah, James. “This Boy's War.” Nation 259, no. 17 (21 November 1994): 618-20.
[In the following essay, Hannah examines In Pharaoh's Army in conjunction with Wolff's other books, emphasizing how this particular memoir represents a continuation of recurring themes in the author's body of work.]
In an interview conducted in 1989 by Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver and published in Contemporary Literature, the writer Tobias Wolff concedes that in his short fiction Vietnam remains mostly in the background, a place soldiers are leaving for or have returned from. When asked if it is difficult to write about Vietnam directly, Wolff replies: “Part of the problem is that the war novel in American literature is one of the most powerful inheritances we have. The writer of a first-rate novel about Vietnam is going to have to invent a novel that will escape the pull of convention, instead of writing a World War II novel and sticking it in Vietnam.” Though he admits that parts of Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato do this, he finds more to like in O'Brien's title story, “The Things They Carried.” But he reserves his greatest admiration for the personal narratives: Michael Herr's Dispatches, Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. For a fictional accounting to work, Wolff says, it will “take an enormous amount of invention...
(The entire section is 2109 words.)
SOURCE: Hopkinson, Amanda. “Fragging Morality.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 332 (9 December 1994): 39-40.
[In the following review, Hopkinson calls In Pharaoh's Army an understated indictment of the Vietnam War.]
Tobias Wolff's indictment of the US war in Vietnam is all the more withering for being so gentle. Its tone, which is what keeps you reading even the most horrific accounts, has a subtlety and modesty that belie the apparent detachment. The anecdotes that fuel the overwhelming humiliation of the whole experience are graced with charm, and even humour.
Many vituperative critiques have been made of that mad and disastrous period. The waste of lives—overwhelmingly civilian on the Vietnamese side, merely youthful on the American—is impossible to justify either in the chimerical cause of “defeating Communism” or as an experiment destruction waged by the US arms industry. But what ripples this book is the inner corrosion wrought by such a war—a far cry from the vaunted camaraderie of the battlefield.
In a series of remarkably candid “memories of a lost war”, Wolff recounts his own progressive abandonment of western morality, based on honesty, trustworthiness, chivalry and charity. Without irony, he explains how his corruption arose from one Sergeant Benet, who had the survivor's ability to fix means to ends. Benet is a paradox: a black...
(The entire section is 602 words.)
SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “What You'd Call a Good Man?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4786 (23 December 1994): 22.
[In the following review, Wood offers a mixed assessment of In Pharaoh's Army, complimenting Wolff's style and skill but questioning the tone of the memoir.]
At the end of Tobias Wolff's short novel, The Barracks Thief, the narrator looks back on his life and sees in his army service an emblematic moment, a place where three once-raw recruits came to represent radically different destinies. One became a thief, another a deserter, while the narrator became “a conscientious man, a responsible man, maybe even what you'd call a good man—I hope so”. Disavowals haunt this wary self-congratulation. “But I'm also a careful man, addicted to comfort, with an eye for the safe course.” He won't ever bother his neighbours, “or expect them to be my friends”.
What we'd call a good man looks like a moral disaster, a person who has shut down all risks, a miser of emotions. The characters in Wolff's fiction are always trying to escape or stave off this terminal condition; or they step sadly into it, harried by nostalgia. In his remarkable first autobiographical work, This Boy's Life (1989), Wolff recounted the story of a child who, it seemed, had broken off all serious relations with goodness, so that responsibility and conscience couldn't possibly get...
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SOURCE: Garvey, Michael O. “A Predator of Experience.” Commonweal 122, no. 10 (19 May 1995): 30.
[In the following review, Garvey applauds In Pharaoh's Army for capturing not only the horrors of war, but also the unique and beautiful moments arising out of wartime conflicts.]
The AP photographer Horst Faas, who took many pictures of the war in Vietnam, replied memorably when an interviewer once suggested that his attraction to the subject of combat might be more than strictly professional: “Vot I like eez boom boom. Oh yes,” he said.
Faas and other boom-boom aficionados would be disappointed by Tobias Wolff's essays on arms and men. Some readers of In Pharaoh's Army might suspect that Tobias Wolff himself is bemused by the unconventional nature of his memoir and even slightly apologetic that he can't manage to sound a little more like Michael Herr, Philip Caputo, Tim O'Brien, and other shaken veterans of the disaster in Southeast Asia. His problem—it seems to me at least—is that he's a far better writer than anyone else who has yet tried to describe what happened in Vietnam.
In his earlier book, This Boy's Life, Wolff gave an account of his own adolescence which perfectly balanced pity for his vulnerable teen-age self and ironical examination of that self's outrageous posturing. This is an exercise that Catholic school children were...
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SOURCE: Hoy II, Pat C. “They Died for Nothing, Did They Not?” Sewanee Review 103, no. 3 (summer 1995): 456-58.
[In the following excerpt, Hoy lauds In Pharaoh's Army for being a balanced and unapologetic look at the Vietnam War.]
At the end of his memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, Tobias Wolff gives us a glimpse of his own homecoming after a year as an adviser to the Vietnamese army. Joining the American army had been essential to Wolff's “idea of legitimacy” because the men he had respected as he was growing up, and most of the writers he looked up to, had all served. He also wanted to become “respectable” in a way that his father had not been. Serving was the “indisputable certificate of citizenship and probity.”
Yet, when Wolff came back from Vietnam, he spent a week alone in a “seedy” San Francisco hotel room feeling not “freedom and pleasure” as he had expected but “aimlessness and solitude.” It wasn't the U.S. Army he missed; there was a more troubling condition that he saw reflected in his own “gaunt hollow-eyed” image. Without his army headgear, he seemed “naked and oversized … newly hatched, bewildered without history.” “Broodingly alone,” he knew that he could not reenter the “circle” of his family, and so he avoided its members: “It did not seem possible to stand in the center of that circle. I...
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SOURCE: Rogoff, Jay. “Novel Truths and Memory Games.” Shenandoah 46, no. 2 (summer 1996): 99-102.
[In the following review, Rogoff argues that In Pharaoh's Army is a honest and complex memoir, praising its style and technique.]
Tobias Wolff's 1989 memoir, This Boy's Life, began with a terrible accident: past the overheating car in which young Toby and his mother drive to Utah, a truck without brakes barrels downhill and soon reappears in a ravine at the bottom of a cliff. That accident seemed so cinematic and such a perfect emblem of that book's disasters and close calls, that it is bewildering why Michael Caton-Jones didn't open his film adaptation with it.
Wolff's new Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, also begins with a traffic disaster, but one in which Wolff plays a more active role:
Some peasants were blocking the road up ahead. I honked the horn but they chose not to hear. They were standing around under their pointed hats, watching a man and a woman yell at each other. When I got closer I saw two bicycles tangled up, a busted wicker basket, and vegetables all over the road. It looked like an accident. …
I kept honking the horn as I came on. The peasants held their ground longer than I thought they would, almost long enough to make me...
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SOURCE: Hannah, James. “Part 1: The Short Fiction: In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-44. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1996.
[In the following essay, Hannah studies the twelve stories included in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, focusing on how each reflects themes about changing one's life for the better.]
It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it's one of the affirming arts. It's one of the most intimate things that people do together. … A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.
Tobias Wolff, from an interview with Jean W. Ross
In 1981, such an “optimistic act” as Tobias Wolff describes above took place with the publication of his collection of a dozen stories intriguingly entitled In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, from a line in Roger Weingarten's book of poems Ethan Benjamin Bolt—a line, Wolff writes, that “just lashed out at me.”1 This addition to what was then considered to be the renaissance of the American short story was met with ample and favorable critical response. Richard Orodenker, writing in...
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SOURCE: Hannah, James. “Part 1: The Short Fiction: Back in the World.” In Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 45-102. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1996.
[In the following essay, Hannah examines the ten stories in Back in the World and compares the collection to In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, concluding that, while the two share some subject matter and style, Back in the World is notably less optimistic about the possibility of improving one's situation.]
The desire to subvert and to probe and to question and to dig the foundations out from under everybody and to represent fraudulent selves to the world, all that is contained and legitimized in imaginative acts. What is destructive and also self-destructive is transformed. You don't give it up. You just find a way of using it.
Tobias Wolff, from an interview with Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver
Between the publication of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs in 1982 and Back in the World in 1985, Tobias Wolff had been generously recognized. In the Garden had received the St. Lawrence Award in fiction and been published in England as Hunters in the Snow. His novella, The Barracks Thief, had won the PEN/Faulkner Award. And Wolff had been honored with a...
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SOURCE: McGraw, Erin. “Telling Lives.” Georgia Review 51, no. 2 (summer 1997): 380-82.
[In the following excerpt, McGraw explores the moral resonance of the stories collected in The Night in Question.]
Tobias Wolff frequently uses narrative passages to give dignity to his characters, although dignity in his world is rarely so overwhelming as it is in “The Magic Barrel.” Wolff isn't interested in exalting his characters; he's interested in judging them, and his stories typically have a sharp moral edge. Which is the greater wrong, to tell a small lie that will save your own pride, or a much larger lie that will keep others from being hurt? Is it worse to neglect an old friend or to pay attention to him by taking advantage of him? Again and again, Wolff poses troubling questions. His stories often resemble parables, and like parables they have no clear answers other than to suggest that we would do well to know ourselves.
Wolff specializes in characters who lack self-awareness, whose sense of themselves is almost wholly at odds with the reality of their lives, and he uses narrative exposition to explore and illuminate those disheveled psyches. Characteristic passages rely on meticulously controlled alterations of tone: Wolff begins by assuming a detached narrative stance, shifts into the character's thoughts, then slides back again—and the distinction between the two voices...
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SOURCE: Wolff, Tobias, and Elizabeth Glass. “Mastering the Memoir: Tobias Wolff.” Writer's Digest (July 1997): 25-7.
[In the following interview, Wolff discusses This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, explaining his opinions on the differences between literary memoir and autobiography.]
Although the “literary memoir” has been around for decades, Tobias Wolff helped pioneer its current incarnation as a genre that's reaching a wide audience among today's readers. Wolff's seminal work, This Boy's Life, is often pointed to as the first literary memoir that employed aspects of creative nonfiction—recreated dialogue, a fictive-narrative structure, use of scenes instead of mere retelling—to add excitement and meaning to a traditional essay structure.
His 1994 memoir, In Pharaoh's Army, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and This Boy's Life was made into a movie in 1993. Wolff's achievements extend into other fields: His short-story collections include The Night in Question, Back in the World, and In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. And his novel The Barracks Thief won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award in 1985.
This Boy's Life stands as a prototype of the successful modern literary memoir. Wolff doesn't begin at his birth, nor does he give the details of his adult life or of...
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SOURCE: Challener, Daniel D. “Desperate to Be the All-American Boy: This Boy's Life.” In Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff, pp. 53-79. New York: Garland, 1997.
[In the following essay, Challener explores how This Boy's Life chronicles a young man's quest to fulfill the American ideal of masculinity and notes that, despite cultural pressures and personal setbacks, the memoir's protagonist proves remarkably resilient.]
Late in This Boy's Life, fifteen year old Tobias Wolff stands in front of a full length mirror in one of Seattle's most exclusive men's clothing stores. He has just been admitted to an elite all-male boarding school and has been brought to the clothing store by a rich alumnus of that school who wants to buy for Toby all the “right clothing.” The rich alumnus does not know that Toby earned admission by forging his application, transcript, and letters of recommendation.
Toby, on the other hand, is well aware of how he got into the prep school and even more aware of his mediocre academic record and frequent problems at home and in school. As Toby worries about his future, Toby's benefactor and his wife arrange a claret cashmere scarf over the black cashmere overcoat they have chosen for him. They step back, and Toby is left to look at...
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Bautz, Mark. “Wolff's Memoir Explores the Rites of War.” Insight on the News 10, no. 48 (28 November 1994): 27.
Bautz discusses the manifestations of hope and failure in In Pharaoh's Army, and compliments Wolff's acuity as a storyteller.
Clute, John. Review of The Stories of Tobias Wolff, by Tobias Wolff. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4441 (13-19 May 1988): 532.
Clute evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of The Stories of Tobias Wolff.
Gould, Molly. “Nothing's Sacred.” San Francisco Review of Books (March-April 1995): 20-1.
Gould admires Wolff's candor in his two memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.
Greenwell, Bill. “Goose Corn.” New Statesman 104, no. 2679 (23 July 1982): 23.
Greenwell examines the prose style and plot of Hunters in the Snow.
Knudsen, James. Review of The Night in Question, by Tobias Wolff. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 600.
Knudsen offers a positive assessment of The Night in Question.
Miller, D. Quentin. Review of Best New American Voices 2000, by Tobias Wolff. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 1 (spring 2001): 205.
Miller praises the diversity...
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