The Night in Question

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Tobias Wolff is known for his long fiction and autobiographies, set in the deadly fields of Vietnam and driven by intergenerational conflict. THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, his second collection of short stories, embraces similar settings as it explores aspects of loyalty and betrayal.

The bonds of loyalty to family and friends are crucial. In “Powder,” a boy must reconcile his foresight with his father’s reckless brinkmanship. The son accepts the danger of a hair-raising ride down a snowcovered mountain and the pain of family breakup as the price for a peak experience. The title story presents Frances and Frank Junior, siblings whose lives are deformed by now dead Frank Senior’s abuse of his son and Frances’ attempts to protect him. When Frank Junior repeats a sermon about a father’s choice to save a trainload of strangers while killing his son, a parallel to the story of Jesus, Frances pushes him to reject the moral and choose the loved individual above the many, as she has done for him, even at the expense of rejecting God. In “Casualty,” Biddy wrestles with loyalty to Ryan, a “wise guy,” goaded into accepting dangerous assignments in Vietnam. Must Biddy rush into harm’s way to protect him? Can he recognize his relief at Ryan’s death?

Wolff’s characters are memorable, his stories well plotted. They offer new readers an introduction to his universe and loyal fans an excuse to revisit it.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, August, 1996, p. 1857.

Boston Globe. October 6, 1996, p. N15.

Denver Post. October 13, 1996, p. G11.

The Guardian. November 20, 1996, II, p. 4.

Library Journal. CXXI, September 1, 1996, p. 213.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 13, 1996, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, November 3, 1996, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, August 5, 1996, p. 428.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. November 24, 1996, p. C5.

San Francisco Chronicle. October 13, 1996, p. REV3.

The Night in Question

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his longer fictional and autobiographical works, Tobias Wolff examines human love and trust, the ties of loyalty which bind wives to husbands, children to parents, soldiers to their comrades in arms. Often, these ties persist in spite of repeated disappointment and betrayal. The Night in Question, Wolff’s second collection of short stories centers around the same themes. The time and settings of the fifteen stories are similar to those Wolff uses in his longer works. His characters inhabit Vietnam-era military camps, college campuses, and middle-class neighborhoods of the American West Coast. Readers already familiar with Wolff’s novels may enjoy the formal contrast between the longer works and these well crafted short stories, where characters assume the weight of full histories with the skillful use of few details. Readers new to Wolff will find this collection an excellent introduction to his universe.

Wolff is particularly good in his portraits of the young as they deal with the uncertain terrain of adolescence. His central characters all come from troubled families; they have the weight of the universe on their shoulders. Often the adult protagonists of other stories are these damaged children, grown up.

In the third story, “Powder,” a young boy observes and judges his father in a dangerous situation created entirely by the father’s lack of foresight, a quality which he himself possesses. The father is a charming master of the art of brinkmanship. The wife and mother who binds the two does not appear directly in the story, yet her implied judgment of her husband lies between the lines. The narrator is both fully conscious of the dangers, physical and emotional, which his father invites. He is also grudgingly, necessarily, vulnerable to the thrill of his father’s personality. The father’s promise to return his son safely to Christmas dinner from an ill-advised ski trip will be kept only at the price of terrible risks, since he insists on remaining in the mountains until a fresh snowstorm has closed the roads. The son knows his parents’ marriage and his own life hang in the balance as they avoid a police roadblock to descend the mountain. Instead of foresight, the father possesses reckless skill as a driver, a genius at following the invisible road beneath the powder snow. There is no fatal mishap, but beyond the seemingly happy ending lies an inevitable confrontation with the state police and eventual family tragedy. The son, who must identify with both parents, since he recognizes elements of both in himself, can eventually accept the family breakup for the sake of a peak experience with his father.

“Flyboys” presents a complex interweaving of friendship and loyalty among three boys and their families. The first-person narrator, speaking from some future vantage point, reminisces about planning to build a jet with Clark, a boy from a wealthy, “lucky” family. The narrator eagerly spends his time in Clark’s comfortable home, a contrast to his own, where his parents are fighting out the last acts of a dying marriage. He offers his imagination and ideas, Clark develops them into precisely drawn blueprints. When a third boy, Freddy, offers them a real jet canopy, part of his dead father’s legacy, the idea suddenly acquires physical possibility.

As the boys meet at Freddy’s home, the narrator reflects on the history of their friendship. Over a long period of time, he sought out Freddy and his family for the mutual comfort apparent in the effortless teasing and word games they play together. Freddy’s family is cursed by horrible bad luck. Not only has Freddy’s father died, but a charismatic older brother has been killed in a motorcycle accident and Freddy has recently nearly died from asthma. His mother is crippled by her grief. The narrator, like Freddy’s amiable good-for-nothing stepfather Ivan, had temporarily abandoned the family in their unhappiness, stopping his visits and avoiding Freddy at school. Clark’s home and the jet plans had replaced Freddy. Now the narrator measures his guilt against his compatibility with Freddy, the family’s chronic unhappiness with their generous affection.

The weight of the bad luck of Freddy’s family is presented in the dead brother’s truck, laden with cheap firewood Ivan has ripped from what had been a beautiful forest. Ivan has managed to mire the truck deep in mud. The three boys pit their wits and muscles to the task and temporarily rescue Ivan’s project,...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Most of Tobias Wolff's stories do not depend on a detailed description of a particular location for their effectiveness. Wolff tends to...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Since he does not have the novelist's space to gradually develop character, Wolff feels that it is very important for him to have a...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Aside from his memoir of the time he spent in the Special Forces in Vietnam, which one critic described as Wolff's record "of his sense of...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Why is the protagonist of "Mortals" so driven by a desire to wring an admission of deception from Givens?

2. Are B. D.'s and...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. For Wolff, and for many other men of his generation, the war in Vietnam was one of the defining moments of their lives. Among other...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Wolff's autobiographical account, This Boy's Life: A Memoir, was filmed in 1994, with Robert DeNiro in the part of Dwight, his...

(The entire section is 259 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Conarroe, Joel. Review of This Boy's Life. New York Times Book Review (January 15, 1989): 1, 28. An incisive discussion of Wolff's...

(The entire section is 277 words.)