Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is one of the most highly respected writers of short fiction to have achieved prominence in the 1980’s. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 19, 1945, the son of Arthur and Rosemary (Loftus) Wolff, and grew up in the state of Washington, where he and his mother had moved some six years after his parents’ divorce in 1951. Wolff left his home in rural Washington to attend preparatory school at the Hill School in Pennsylvania but failed to graduate from that institution. After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Special Forces, serving from 1964 to 1968, during which time he served in Vietnam, Wolff earned a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1972 and a master’s degree from Oxford in 1975. He spent the 1975-1976 academic year at Stanford University, having won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing. He earned a master’s degree from Stanford in 1978, the same year in which he received his first National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Like many other contemporary writers, Wolff has supported himself by teaching. He has served on the faculties of Stanford University, Goddard College, Arizona State University, and Syracuse University and has been a reporter for The Washington Post. Wolff published his first collection of stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, in 1981. The book received exceptional reviews, and the following year it earned for Wolff the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction. In the stories’ range of characters, situations, and literary techniques, this collection revealed Wolff to be a writer not merely of promise but of manifest achievement as well.
Wolff’s second book, the novella The Barracks Thief, confirmed his narrative gifts. Originally a novel-length manuscript, it was subjected to intense revision that eliminated inessential characters as well as unnecessary passages of exposition and that introduced greater complexity of narrative technique—including Wolff’s startling yet successful shifts from third-person to first-person points of view. Widely admired by reviewers, The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985 as the best work of fiction published during the preceding year. The year 1985 also saw the publication of Wolff’s second collection of stories, Back in the World. Frequently set in either California or the Pacific Northwest, all the stories in this volume use third-person points of view that tend to distance the reader from the characters. Although this collection did not generate as enthusiastic a response from reviewers as did Wolff’s first two books, it continued to develop a number of his...
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