Tobias Wolff

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Valentine Cunningham (review date 14 March 1975)

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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 occasion than the naiver intention of Sand in the Wind just to tell it like it was.


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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.

Biographical Information

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...

(This entire section contains 1338 words.)

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University, and Syracuse University. He has also taught literature and creative writing at Stanford University. In addition to his PEN/Faulkner Award forThe 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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.”

Bruce Allen (review date spring 1982)

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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 Brooke,” he shows, through a series of brilliant understatements, how a thoughtless brief love affair powerfully alters the course of several surprisingly connected lives.

These are really disturbing stories, their power compacted in small, unobtrusive, yet strongly echoing perceptions and images. One narrator, hearing that a family friend “had lost his faith in college,” conjures up a “picture of a raincoat hanging by itself outside a dining hall.” A woman, driving, is so absorbed in telling a friend her troubles that she never notices that two deer are caught in her headlights; just keeps on talking. Wolff can create quietly powerful settings (“In the distance the mountains were heaped with thick coils of cloud, and closer up in the foothills the mist lay among the treetops. Water ran down the trunks of the trees and stood everywhere”), or underscore the ominousness of a conventional experience by spare, flat descriptions (for example, here is how a newly inducted soldier perceives boot camp: “They made fun of our clothes and took them away from us. They shaved our heads until little white scars showed through, then filled our arms with boots and belts and helmets and punctured them with needles”).

This attentiveness to the world that surrounds and defines people's private conflict and turmoil—to not just a social context, but a universal one—is what I suppose I mean by the amplitude and depth manifest in our recent fiction (it's what classic fiction has always attempted, and it's also what writers like Tobias Wolff are attempting). There's no better way of understanding human limitations, it seems to me, than by reasserting—and re-exploring—the inherence of the human in something larger than itself. It's very good to see such ample and persuasive evidence that the short story will continue to be one of our avenues to that understanding.

Principal Works

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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 Snow,Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief.

Richard Orodenker and Welch D. Everman (review date June 1982)

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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 to us. A pair of hunters let their wounded friend bleed and freeze as they expose their own pathetic selves to each other, lose track of themselves, and make a wrong turn on their way to the hospital. An English professor, entering the world of guilt and sorrow, is genuinely touched by a woman, hairless from chemotherapy treatments. He is moved that her life has been somehow saved by a poem (by a McKuenesque poet) that had given her the strength to survive. His experience challenges his own way of thinking, his own habit of passing judgments on other people, until he must become the one “to sit in the front of the church” and be watched by others. Wolff's characters, like the nameless narrator of “Smokers,” are “those who knew that something was wrong but didn't know what it was.”

The author does not moralize, though his concerns are usually moral in nature. His characters are Everymen, like Davis in the brilliant story, “Worldly Goods.” Davis, victimized in a harmless automobile accident, must deal with a claims adjuster, a modern version of Knowledge, who gives Davis the kind of advice he will need to get by in the world, that is, to screw before he himself is screwed. Davis stands on moral principle, but that is not enough. A friend tells him, “Nothing is good enough for you.” Davis cannot see beyond the surface issues: he will drive his life the way he resolves to drive his maimed automobile “the way it was until it fell apart.” And, ironically, his car is stolen from him, the way all our worldly goods are, in time, taken from us. In “Passengers,” this theme is reprised once again: if a person must change his ways, what if he “wasn't sure just what was wrong with his ways?” We may admire the heroine's ability to see through her pathetic lover in “Face to Face,” but what she sees never really goes beyond the heart of pity. We know that she is coming face to face with herself, deciding, as her lover has, “always to be alone.” But does she know this? It is a process, writes Wolff, that might “take forever.” For characters who can never “imagine things coming together,” conversely, they must see things “always falling apart.” How difficultly or belatedly they will come to know (as Vernon does in “Poaching”) if ever they have “been offered an olive branch and were not far from home.”

So “Mend your lives.” “Turn from power to love,” the feeble history teacher of the title story advises us. And Wolff responds poetically: how do we do so in a world where our own hands seem to be things we are holding for someone else? To protect us is the insulating power of lies. As Wolff demonstrates in “The Liar,” lies, like fictions, sometimes bring people closer to the truths—in this case, that people do have something in common with each other in their relishing of lies and in their loathing of lies—“a shared fear.”

Many of the stories of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs end on an introspective note. The narratives filter down to a moment alone with a character, who may be sitting alone in a closet, smoking a joint or lying on a blanket, dreaming up at the stars or lecturing passionately but with her hearing aid turned off. There they reflect and, maybe, learn. To us, they are specks on a large photograph that, when enlarged, reveals expressions on faces that are troubling, fearful, and human.

Dean Flower (review date summer 1982)

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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 breaking point, gets himself shot in the stomach, and spends the rest of the story bounced around in the rear of a pickup truck on the way to a hospital they never reach. The third hunter is Frank, a typical Wolff character in that he fails to take any stand, siding with Kenny at first and getting drunk with Tub later, apparently because the confusions of his personal life (an affair with the babysitter) have made him covertly vengeful. “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brook” exposes the cruelty of a young English professor who cuts down a fellow scholar in a panel discussion and then indulges himself in an overnight romance with an ignorant young poetess. Wolff charts this progression from unconscious arrogance to uneasy guilt to self-pity and deception so believably that you wonder at the end why anyone ever thought the humanities made people humane. In the title story a woman who teaches history at a West Coast college is flown to an eastern university for a job interview, only to learn that the position isn't open and she must deliver a lecture (not her own) to complete the charade of a “nationwide search.” Instead of the canned lecture, however, she improvises from her research in American history a hair-raising account of how the Iroquois tormented their captives with red-hot hatchets, pitch, and boiling water. We are left in no doubt about who in the lecture room are the Iroquois and who is the captive martyr; but the stinging justice of her tirade only intensifies her hopeless position. The recurring predicament of a Wolff character seems to be fear of the self: fear of sexual aggression, of betraying half-hearted loyalties, of asserting authority. Between cruelties and fears, Wolff doesn't leave us enough to choose. He has narrowed his vision so far as to suggest gratuitous cruelty, and that needs to be tempered.

Further Reading

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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 of Best New American Voices 2000, commenting that “Wolff has selected twenty fine stories that vary greatly in terms of tone, subject matter, even length.”

Saari, Jon. Review of Back in the World, by Tobias Wolff. Antioch Review 44, no. 1 (winter 1986): 118-19.

Saari praises Wolff's writing style in Back in the World, noting that the stories “unfold without calling attention to any stated philosophical position or tricky narrative aesthetic.”

Wolff, Tobias, Bonnie Lyons, and Bill Oliver. “Citizens and Outlaws.” In Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, pp. 171-89. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Wolff discusses his perceptions of himself as a writer, his preoccupation with liars in his fiction, and the morality of his characters.

Wolff, Tobias, and Michael Schumacher. “Tobias Wolff and the Patterns of Memoir-Writing.” Writer's Digest (August 1989): 52-3.

Wolff discusses the process of writing his memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.

Additional coverage of Wolff's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 16; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Bestsellers, Vol. 90:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 114, 117; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 22; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 54, 76, 96; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 64; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 11.

Bruce Allen (review date 7 June 1985)

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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 connections), and confer real power on the ending that shows Philip in later life, long after Vietnam, having become “a careful man” and now remembering “how it felt to be a reckless man with reckless friends.”

The Barracks Thief is a moving and original rendering of antagonisms and apprehensions probably peculiar to youth at any time, but intensified in the twin contexts of ongoing war and a culture that seems to view separation, even alienation, as available social options.

Wolff displays his characters' ennui and semi-despair in abrupt Hemingway-like scenes that understate strong emotion and slowly draw us deep inside these embryonic lives struggling toward maturity and completion.

There are several fully rounded, moving scenes: Philip rejecting his estranged father's ardent efforts to reconnect; a confrontation between soldiers on parade and a cadre of war protesters; a hallucinatory extended description of three soldiers guarding an ammo dump as a nearby fire intensifies. In fact, so many recognizable longings and fears are packed into this taut book's brief compass that we come away from it scarcely believing how much its people, and we, have been through.

Thomas DePietro (review date autumn 1986)

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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 all right.” This leads to the equally enigmatic insight “that there was never going to be anyone to tell her these things. She had no idea why this should be so; it was just something she knew.”

Even the longer, hence somewhat more compelling, pieces (“Soldier's Joy,” “Our Story Begins,” or “The Rich Brother”) end washed-out and proud of it. This is especially annoying in “The Missing Person,” the best of the lot, which begins with great promise. Fr. Leo, a young but old-fashioned priest, finds himself the pastor of a wild, post-Vatican II convent in financial and physical shambles. The dull clergyman and a smooth-talking fundraiser, the latter a likeable charlatan, celebrate their success at soliciting contributions with a junket to Las Vegas (“when you reach a certain point it's the logical place to come”). Amidst the high rollers and lounge lizards, Jerry disappears with the money he's been secretly embezzling from the convent. Bored Fr. Leo, out of his collar, befriends a lonely woman who, as if aware this story is going nowhere, provides what could serve as the epigraph to Wolff's entire collection: “Once I start something I have to finish it. I have to take it to the end and see how it turns out, even if it turns out awful.”

Linda Taylor (review date 6-12 November 1987)

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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 grieves unashamedly for the death of close friends, who condemns the war, who is frightened of dying.

But Tobias Wolff is often kindest to the least likeable and weakest of his characters. Lewis's failures at whoring in the town are sympathetically followed; and he experiences the only moment of tenderness in the book. It is Lewis who is victimized by his fellow soldiers; and it is Lewis who gives Philip the most reckless memory in his life: the moment when, guarding the ammunition dump, he persuades Philip and Hubbard not to heed the warnings about a nearby forest fire which, if it had reached them, would have blown them to pieces. “It would have been something”, though, says Philip.

The Barracks Thief is a book to be taken in all at once: the ingenuousness of the narration and the vulnerability of the characters are disarmingly seductive. Wolff, like Lewis, will have nothing to do with soothing balm; he depicts every aspect of his recruits' burning prickly discomfort.

Richard Eder (review date 8 January 1989)

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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. When he was 10, she left the lover, fearing of violence, and drove Tobias to Utah, where she intended to get rich speculating for uranium. The field was overcrowded, though, and she had to settle for an office job in Salt Lake City.

Roy, the lover, joined them there. Things went along fairly peacefully—though he would follow her jealously to work and burst into tears if he lost sight of her—until he began pressing her to have a baby. She and Tobias took a cab to the bus station, planning to go to Phoenix, but a Seattle bus came through first, and they caught it.

After a time in Seattle, they moved to Chinook, a town in the Cascade foothills, where Tobias' mother married Dwight, a house painter. Here Tobias lived, continually tormented by his stepfather, until, toward the end of high school, he got a scholarship to the Hill School, a boarding establishment in the East.

The successive uprootings turned Tobias wary and elusive. But he had to cope with worse things. His real father remained in Connecticut with his older brother, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey Wolff, a novelist and critic, wrote a first-rate and successful book about this unstable father. Tobias never heard from him during several critical years: it was only long after he died, in fact, that he realized how abandoned he had felt all along.

The real hell of his young life, however, was provided by his stepfather. Roy, with his sporadic outbursts and instability, had been a kind of dress rehearsal for Dwight. Still, Roy showed a certain affection for the boy and had gave him a prized Winchester.22 rifle. Dwight, on the other hand, treated him as a perpetual interloper and rival.

“I was bound to accept as my home a place I didn't feel at home in and to take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it,” Wolff writes.

Throughout his growing up, Tobias was a kind of hostage to this insecure, jealous and occasionally violent man. From the start. Dwight made it clear that he was determined to get the boy under his thumb. After a few drinks, the stepfather would take him for wildly careening rides in his car, while lecturing him for his laziness and rebelliousness.

“Dwight made a study of me,” Wolff writes. He compelled the boy to spend an entire winter of evenings painfully shelling horse-chestnuts; he made him work a paper route, took the money to “save” for him and spent it himself. He removed the cherished.22 rifle and traded it for an incontinent and gun-shy hunting dog that was ostensibly to belong to Tobias.

It growled and snapped at him, though, until he eventually lost control and beat it with a mop handle. After that, it followed him everywhere—much worse—and insisted on sleeping in his bed.

Dwight's oppression was accomplished less by violence than by a hectoring and mediocre discourse. What Tobias felt was not terror but hopelessness. “I experienced it as more bad weather to get through, not biting, just dim and heavy.” When the boy sometimes dreamed of killing his stepfather, it was “mainly to shut him up.”

The portrait of Dwight is vivid and grisly, and the lighter touches only make it worse. When Tobias joins the Boy Scouts, Dwight, a former Eagle Scout, gets out his old badges, buys himself a spiffy new uniform and becomes an assistant scoutmaster. It's partly to keep an eye on Tobias, but mostly it's to outshine him.

To brighten the house, Dwight paints it all white, even the furniture. He sprays the Christmas tree with three coats of white; the needles fall off. The piano, a black walnut Baldwin, bothers him. “Kind of stands out, doesn't it?” he says to the boy cheerfully; and paints it white, too; even the yellowed ivory keys.

Tobias, who also stands out, conceals himself to protect his own needles. Even before meeting Dwight he has, at each move, tried to take on a new identity. Arriving in Seattle, where he changes his name to Jack, he falls in with a group of semi-delinquents and gets in trouble at school. He welcomes the move to Chinook as a chance to start over as a serious student and “a boy of dignity.”

The Boy Scouts appealed to him because he could pretend to be the manly, energetic scout depicted in the manual. And when, at 16, he gets in touch with Geoffrey and his father, and they encourage him to try for a prep school scholarship, he constructs his most spectacular disguise.

His grades had been mediocre at school; his record in general was totally undistinguished. Through a friend in the school office, he obtains a stack of blank transcripts and stationery. He gives himself top grades and writes a series of glowing recommendations.

It works; with the encouragement of a local Hill alumnus, he is admitted. Predictably, he does badly there and eventually is expelled. When we last see him, he is about to join the Army and go to Vietnam—one more new life.

This Boy's Life is a desperate story. The desperation is conveyed in a narration that is chilly and dispassionate on the whole, vivid in its detail, and enlivened by disconcerting comedy. But Wolff does not use stoicism—as it often is used—as a mask of its own. He punctuates it with passionate outbursts and incidents of a near-surreal resonance.

Reading his memoir can be like repeatedly closing one's hand around a drowning man's wrist, and feeling it repeatedly slip away. What bobs to the surface is the writer.

Take his remarkable account of falsifying his school record. He invented things, he tells us, but only those things that he thought of as essentially authentic. He didn't write himself a football record; football didn't interest him. On the other hand, he could imagine himself a swimmer. So he invented a swimming team and a coach who praised his prowess in the water.

“I wrote,” this writer—even then—writes, “without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seems to me I saw, at last, my own face.”

Jeff Danziger (review date 16 February 1989)

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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 and snobbish, but all the more compelling. The escape he plans from the dull, rainy prison of rural Washington State for himself and his beloved mother is nearly derailed by the same cupidity that sparked it.

It's a story written by every author in one way or another from Norman Mailer to John Boy Walton. But I don't think it has ever been done this well. In Wolff's version there's rage marbled with a wise humor which reluctantly allows that the horrors of his formative years were probably no worse than a great many others'. His wit is dry and deadly, always understated, reminding me of Jean Shepherd at his best, and a little better. Wolff lays out in spare detail how badly and crazily he was treated, how wrongfully his dreams were ignored or sidetracked.

I don't have much patience for writers tracing the forces that made them writers, assuming that we care. But this is different. The underlying story is of how a young person slowly, and sadly, realized that the world is unfair and he didn't get the better share. This process happens in little instances, parents fighting over scarce money, friends destroyed by ignorance, others parading their advantages. The reaction is either acceptance, rebellion, fantasy, or, as in Wolff's case, an inconsistent mixture of all three. He becomes by turns a liar, a thief, a braggart, and a snob—each role an attempt to redress his grievances against the world.

Which sounds awful, except that Mr. Wolff also became a fine writer, an accomplishment for which nearly any childhood crimes may be excused.

Geoff Dyer (review date 28 April 1989)

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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 with an eye for the detail that is also a mood—is everywhere apparent here [in This Boy's Life], from the afternoon in 1955 when the ten year old Toby sets off from Florida with his mother in the hope of striking it rich on uranium, to the moment when he undertakes a daring act of fraud to try to win a scholarship to an expensive east coast school.

His father—remembered at length in his brother Geoffrey's book, Duke of Deception—makes only fleeting appearances here, the bulk of the book being taken up with the period of his early and middle teens when his mother remarries and they settle down in a small town near Seattle. Stoically docile in the face of his maniacal stepfather—“Dwight would shoot at anything … He killed chipmunks, squirrels, blue jays and robins. He killed a great snowy owl with a 12-gauge from ten feet away and took potshots at bald eagles as they skimmed the river”—Toby runs wild at high school in nearby Concrete (yes), stealing cars, forging cheques and, eventually, pawning a car-load of firearms.

In his fiction Wolff painstakingly erases all trace of himself; allowing himself back in the picture seems to have had a liberating effect. Three times the length of anything he's published before, This Boy's Life has the feel of a book that was a pleasure to write. “My mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome,” Wolff observes in an introductory note and that tone of wry delight in the job of overhauling the past never deserts him. As ever the sentences have been cast, polished and cut with lapidary exactness but the sense of narrative anxiousness that is the characteristic pleasure of reading his fiction has been replaced by a buoyant expectancy.

Wolff has commented on how painful he finds the initial drafting of a story (where will it take him?); here, of course, the life is the first draft and the process of re-writing—which he evidently loves—begins with the first touch of pen on paper: he knows where he is going because he's been there before.

If the experience of this memoir is, finally, less demanding than that of his fiction then that discrepancy, far from demeaning Wolff's achievement, only serves to demonstrate how much of the novelist's transforming skill lies outside the jurisdiction of the form.

John Clute (review date 12-18 May 1989)

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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 scene in Florida—violent men attract her—and plan to get rich quick in Utah, where they've heard that uranium can be picked up off the ground. Their car has boiled over after climbing the spine of the continent, and they have stopped. A huge truck hurtles out of control past them down the steep Loveland Pass grade, for this is 1955, before the time of the Interstates; and topples hundreds of feet into a canyon. Shocked, Tobias's mother becomes tender with her son, who parlays this moment of weakness into a successful request for Colorado souvenirs before they leave Grand Junction, though he knows there is no money to spare. But her guard is down, and Tobias cannot stop himself. He is ten.

It is an anecdote which demonstrates more than Tobias's precocious skill at playing his audiences for profit; it also illuminates something of the deeply engaging craft of the older Wolff's way with a tale. In giving the impression that the accident and Tobias's manipulation of his mother make up a dramatic unit, he may tell no actual lie, but readers today might reasonably fail to know that in 1955 Grand Junction was many hours' drive westwards of the scene, and might well fail to notice Wolff hinting, on a later page, that the two travellers almost certainly stopped overnight there before slipping over the border into the hopelessness of Utah. Told with this lumbering exactitude, however, the anecdote would have seemed nearly pointless. Again and again, through polishings and elisions of this sort, and through an adroit manipulation of time, Wolff transforms inchoate raw materials into shining fable; about This Boy's Life there abides a sense of easy, limpid profundity.

That sense may not be wholly earned. The legerdemain is sometimes obtrusive, and the sheer professionalism of the book sometimes gives it an almost dandiacal tone, a glow that suffuses the most dreadful moments of young Tobias's perilous race into adulthood, making less than fully persuasive the moral lessons Wolff derives from that race. But the lessons are there to be absorbed. His mother drags him from Utah to Washington, tormenting him with her need for a new man, eventually making the worst possible kind of match with the brutal and hysterical Dwight, who fiercely resents his smart-aleck stepson, tortures him and steals his money. Tobias's violent father has long since disappeared, but the prestige of his East Coast connections continues to haunt the child with visions of a finer, more powerful life; while Tobias is confined to high school in the ghastly town of Concrete, near Seattle; an older brother is attending Princeton.

The only safety for Tobias—the only way he can maintain any saving secret life—is to lie. Because the world offers him nothing to hold on to, he must create his own. He must pretend to become a psychopath (which is perhaps not very different from being one). He fabricates his past; he cheats, steals, bullies, runs rampage; finally, by forging his entire academic record, he gains admission to an exclusive prep school in Pennsylvania. After a slingshot preview of the gruelling years to come in that school and in the army, the book ends.

Because he is brilliant and compulsively audacious, Tobias comes much closer to real criminality, and to serious personality disorder, than most of his countrymen in the same fix—on the wrong side of the Divide. But This Boy's Life is also the story of the making of the man who could have written his book only by learning the lessons it imparts; and that story is an almost unalloyed triumph.

John Rechy (review date 5 November 1989)

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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 employing fully his talents as a fiction writer: He writes in language that is lyrical without embellishment, defines his characters with exact strokes and perfectly pitched voices, creates suspense around ordinary events, locating deep mystery within them.

This juxtaposition produces surprising effects. At times a childhood memory is left as the boy may have experienced it: Tina, a pregnant 15-year-old girl, is seen as “one of a pack of hysterically miserable girls who … did their best to catch the attention of boys who would be sure to use them badly.” He confesses he “felt no pity” for her. Cruel? Yes. Wolff is here being unflinchingly true to the cruelty of childhood.

At other times, as writer, he locates the point of origin for future understanding, even redemption. When the boy is caught stealing gasoline from a poor family, he refuses to apologize: “… there was no difference between explanations and excuses … excuses were unmanly. So were feelings.” That was the boy. This is the writer: “Everything I saw thereafter forced the knowledge in deeper. These people … were near the edge, and I had nudged them that much farther along … Returning the gas didn't change that. The real harm was in their knowing that someone could come upon them … and pause to do them injury. It had to make them feel small and alone, knowing this.”

Jack Wolff—he resumes Tobias only toward the end—is no ghostly memoirist: he is a living character. Seeing himself in a mirror while wearing the unfamiliar clothes of prep school, the “I” of the boy surrenders to the “he” of the emerging writer: “The elegant stranger … regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression … looking for a sign of what lay in store for him … He took a step forward, stuck his hands in his pockets, threw back his shoulders and cocked his head. There was a dash of swagger in his pose.”

The book follows the boy from age 10 to his teens as he and his mother travel—“restless, scheming, poised for flight”—from Florida to Utah to Washington State, through major and minor catastrophes, and very few joys.

A child roams through the world of adults like a spy gathering evidence for future meanings—and encountering much mystery. There is much mystery in Wolff's book. Just as in life, it often is left unsolved. Sister James, “a woman of passion,” is Jack's catechism teacher. When he cannot bring himself to confess to a testy priest, she takes the boy aside and blithely tells him her own childhood sins—she was a “backbiter” who stole from her father. Back in the confessional, the boy recites her sins as his. A few days later she slips a letter under his apartment door, for his mother. The boy opens the letter and learns that the nun wants Mrs. Wolff to call her. About what? Jack burns up the note. “I never saw her again.” Like many others in the book, this perfectly nuanced interlude could stand alone as a gem of a short story.

By conveying an experience with urgent immediacy, Wolff leaves judgment to the reader. Silver, the son of a cantor, is “an only child, clever, skinny, malicious, a shameless coward.” With Jack and another boy, he watches television news clips of what an announcer identifies as the ugly time of “the little Fuehrer and his bullyboys.” Yet the admonitory voice accompanies images that “celebrate snappy uniforms and racy Mercedes staff cars and great marching, thousands of boots slamming down together … while banners streamed overhead and strong voices sang songs that stirred …”

Soon after, Silver is wearing a Nazi armband, telephoning people with Jewish-sounding names and screaming at them in “pig German.” When he and his two friends bombard a car with eggs thrown from a roof, Silver becomes enraged “as if he had been the one set upon and outraged … he leaned over the edge … and screamed a word I had heard only once … ‘Yid!’ Silver screamed.” Wolff leaves the reader to draw the inevitable conclusion: that Silver has, indeed, also been “set upon and outraged.”

Wolff is at his best when he explores complex, even contradictory characters. Dwight, his stepfather, is absurd and cruel. Once started on a room, he cannot stop painting a whole house white, even its furniture. He is obsessed with weapons and their props: “To spot the game he never got close to he carried a pair of high-powered Zeiss binoculars. To dress the game he never killed he carried a Puma hunting knife.” Insisting that Champion—the dog that may be ugly or handsome—is a good hunting dog, he orders it to fetch a stick. The dog merely barks at it. “Smart dog,” Dwight concludes. “Knows it's not a bird.”

Dwight ponders for hours how to refine his tortures of the boy. He takes Jack on life-threatening drives, laughing to show he isn't afraid. He leaves the adult Wolff a terrible legacy: “We hated each other so much that … it disfigured me … I hear his voice in my own when I speak to my children in anger. They hear it too, and look at me in surprise. My youngest once said, ‘Don't you love me any more?’” So powerful is this voice that Wolff has explored its various tones in his best fiction.

Wolff's satirical humor shines here. Jack and his friends dutifully pant after Annette Funicello: “As soon as she appeared … Taylor would start moaning and Silver would lick the screen.” Suddenly children again, they surrender to the mesmerizing mindlessness of the Mickey Mouse Club: “Taylor forgot himself and sucked his thumb.”

Wolff drowns Lawrence Welk, a favorite of Dwight's, in his own Champagne bubbles: Dwight “leaned forward as the bubbles rose over the Champagne Orchestra and Lawrence Welk came on-stage salaaming in every direction, crying out declarations of humility in his unctuous, brain-scalding Swedish kazoo of a voice.” And perhaps no one has more accurately captured the exalted silliness of the Boy Scouts, their tidy education for precise heroism, exact catastrophes.

Wolff accomplishes what every child yearns to do, to get even with stultifying adults by entombing them forever in a book. Mr. Mitchell, civics teacher, goes about sniffing out conflict between boys for his regular “grudge-matches.” Miss Houlihan insists that elocution has to do with “‘reaching down’ for words as if they were already perfectly formed in our stomachs.” She exhorts stupefied children to “simply let the words ‘escape’ … Reach down, reach down.” Horseface Greeley, shop teacher, drops a 50-pound block of iron on his foot to show off his “Tuff-Top shoes, which had reinforced steel uppers.”

Wolff employs his mastery of details and mimetic dialogue to strengthen the reality of his memories: “Gulls strutted on the railing outside, shaking their feathers and turning their heads at us. The air was rich with the smell of chowder. Sunlight gleamed on the silver, lit up the ice cubes in our glasses, made the tablecloth bright as a snowfield.” If those are not the details memory retains, they donate richness to its re-creation.

Here's Dwight instructing Jack on how he approached a fight: “I went over to this guy, but not acting tough, okay? Not acting tough. Acting more like, Oh gee, I'm so scared, please don't hurt me … So I came over to him and in this little scaredy-cat voice I say, Excuse me, what's the problem?” That is not the exact language memory recalls, but it is the expert dialogue of a fine writer.

Wolff structures events into mini-epics: Will the subtly crafty, nervous woman who may have encouraged Jack to cash a fraudulent check entrap him—even following him along the streets, to an alley? Will a return match with Arthur—a boy who prances magnificently in gay defiance but beats Jack up for calling him a sissy—deal Jack another defeat when featured in one of Mr. Mitchell's gruesome “grudge matches”?

In the area of sex, so central to boyhood, Wolff is honestly dishonest with the boy of his memory. Like other boys his age, Jack brags about himself as a “make-out artist.” But he gives no evidence of that, obscures all sexual matters: “… that's another story,” he shrugs, hoping we won't notice—and Wolff chooses not to challenge him.

There is no sentimentality in Wolff's book, no trace of self-pity, no psychological jargon about childhood scars. Without resorting to symbols that would compromise the verisimilitude of his remembered childhood, he can create a sense of meaningful but undefined eeriness. A beaver Dwight ran over and abandoned in the attic is found two years later: “covered with mold … white and transparent, a network of gossamer filaments that had flowered to a height of two feet … like cotton candy but more loosely spun … The mold had no features … but its outline somehow suggested the shape of the beaver it had consumed: a vague cloud-picture of a beaver crouching in the air.”

To the rich fiction of childhood that ranges from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye, Wolff has contributed his superb memoir, his “truthful story.”

Peter J. Bailey (essay date summer 1991)

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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 extratextual comment on the narrative, Wolff acknowledges that he has been “corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was really quite handsome. I've allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story” (i).

That story begins with Wolff at the age of ten traveling with his mother from Florida to Utah in search of better fortune, a new start. When her marriage dissolved five years earlier, Wolff's mother gained unsupported custody of him; her ex-husband took the older son, Geoffrey, who in later years would memorialize his father in his own autobiography, The Duke of Deception. Responsibly taking on menial secretarial jobs to support herself and her son, Wolff's mother experiences her downfall through her attraction to feckless, authoritarian, and sometimes brutal men with whom she futilely tries to create new families for herself and Wolff. Growing up with such makeshift, transient households is the subject of much of This Boy's Life; but rather than presenting himself as a victim of the contingency and marginality of lower class American life, Wolff concentrates instead on his boyhood strategy for dealing with his circumstances. In moving from Florida to Salt Lake City, Wolff resolved to transform himself from Tobias to Jack (after Jack London, one of a very few writers the boy Wolff admits to any familiarity with), a decision that represents the first of his many attempts to recreate himself through imagination, to contrive fictitious versions of himself as a substitute for the one whose childhood his mother's unhappy attractions had brutalized, leaving him with no one to be. (The protagonist is but one of a number of characters in this work who feel themselves “betrayed into an inferior version of life” and who believe that the life they imagine for themselves is more actual than “the real lie … told by our present unworthy circumstances” [158].)

Wolff never explains what inspired him to put aside the short fiction with which he had been so conspicuously successful in favor of autobiography, but the book he wrote—significantly, his first full-length narrative—is itself answer enough. This Boy's Life is an extended meditation upon selfhood, upon the disparity between ideal and actual selves that is a potential product of a deprived childhood, if not a necessary consequence of being human. Because his father and brother both attended prep schools, Jack is encouraged to do so despite his complete lack of academic qualifications. Undeterred by his high school C average and an extensive record of delinquency, Jack contrives for himself a fictitious transcript in which his grades are magically transformed into A's and his teachers sing his praises. Wolff understands that he was lying, but he saw his fabrications as containing a greater truthfulness: “I wrote [the letters of recommendation] without heat or hyperbole,” he recalls, “in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in the letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face” (160).

Whereas Updike dilates expositorily on the self and Roth approaches the complexities of the self by embroiling it within the ironies of contradictory, mutually annulling narratives, Wolff presents the developing self as a fiction that is occasionally transformed into actuality, only to be exposed subsequently as a fraud. Thus Jack is accepted at the Hill School with the help of an interested, unsuspecting alumnus who plays the role of kindly benefactor to Jack's ersatz Horatio Alger, buying the boy an entire wardrobe and preparing him for his new life. At the tailor shop where he is being outfitted, Jack stares in the mirror at the “elegant stranger” wearing an expensive overcoat and silk scarf and feels himself regarded

with a doubtful, almost haunted expression. Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.

He studied me as if I held the answer.

Luckily for him, he was no judge of men. If he had seen the fissures in my character he might have known what he was in for. He might have known that he was headed for all kinds of trouble, and, knowing this, he might have lost heart before the game even started.

But he saw nothing to alarm him. He took a step forward, stuck his hands in his pockets, threw back his shoulders and cocked his head. There was a dash of swagger in his pose, something of the stage cavalier, but his smile was friendly and hopeful.


Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of This Boy's Life is that it manages to keep both of Jack's selves—the cocky, endlessly fabricating “stage cavalier” and the friendly, hopeful, well-meaning American boy—before the reader simultaneously, and it is Wolff's ability to maintain this tension that made autobiography for him not so much an alternative to fiction as an extension of fiction's capacities and possibilities. Adopting a strategy opposite to that of Frederick Exley and Frank Conroy, who in the late 1960s wrote autobiographical novels with projections of themselves as protagonists,1 Wolff wrote an autobiography that reads like a novel because of his control over the material and his conviction that the dividing line between fiction and autobiography is a tenuous, ethereal one. The point Roth makes through an accumulation of self-canceling texts Wolff makes through the simple, direct presentation of autobiography that reads like fiction. His book evokes the same sense of the interpenetrability of autobiography and fiction one finds in the work of his friends and fellow neorealists, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.2 Wolff's autobiography illuminates his short fiction—especially stories like “The Liar” and “Coming Attractions,” in which a protagonist's tendency toward lying is central—but it also competes with and even surpasses those stories in substance and resonance. In his depiction of a boy whose life is dedicated to blurring the distinction between actual and ideal selves, to living a lie of success because the truth of growing up amidst so much transience and defeat is intolerable, Wolff has created a moving parable about the necessary lie that is autobiography. This Boy's Life is a “truthful story” told by an autobiographer who, in his youth, was devoted to the lie that conveyed a deeper truth; and it is in the unresolved tension between truth and lie, self and imposture, autobiography and fiction, that the book finds a structuring dichotomy worthy of and concordant with the finest literary fiction.


  1. See Albert E. Stone, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982) 291-304, and Peter J. Bailey, “Notes on the Novel-as-Autobiography,” Genre XIV, 1 (1981): 79-95.

  2. Compare, for instance, the account of the death of the narrator's father in Carver's “Mr. Fixit and Mr. Coffee” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love with the conclusion of Carver's “My Father's Life,” Esquire 102, 3 (1984): 68; compare Ford's “My Mother, In Memory”, Harper's 275, 1647 (1988): 45-57, with “Great Falls” and “Communist,” two stories in Rock Springs that address a similar mother-son relationship but come to different conclusions. The style and tone of This Boy's Life occasionally recall Ford's stories, in part because the social settings and familial circumstances of these works are remarkably parallel.

John F. Desmond (essay date 14 May 1994)

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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 in the power of language to express truth, so that terms like “fall,” “redemption” and “judgment” themselves become suspect. This general unmooring of language has affected what the Catholic writer can do much more than any diaspora of the faithful or pluralization of belief within the organized church. Nevertheless, Catholic fiction continues to affirm the fundamental mystery and sacramental character of our existence and the reality of the supernatural. Likewise, it affirms our radical incompleteness and the genuine possibility of redemption. To these characteristics I would add another and say: Any nominalistic view of language as the “play” of signifiers, or of words as merely arbitrary tokens of meaning, is fundamentally antithetical to a Catholic vision.

Our age of linguistic skepticism presents a bracing challenge to the Catholic writer. Such a writer is forced to probe the most extreme human experiences, pressuring language's revelatory powers, to articulate the movements of the spirit. Yet such fiction is also purified of the false piety, sentimentality and easy dogmatism that often marred earlier so-called Catholic fiction. Today, Catholic writers still affirm the power of language to reveal the truth of the invisible world; and those who write it are searchers and discoverers of the real. …

The Barracks Thief (1984), Tobias Wolff's award-winning novel, explores the mysterious bond that unites three soldiers—the narrator, the sensitive weakling Hubbard and the obnoxious Lewis—caught in two pivotal events: when together they refuse to abandon their guardpost in the face of an oncoming fire, and when one of them, Lewis, is discovered as the thief who slugged Hubbard and stole his wallet. Looking back years later, the narrator compares the bland, responsible life he lives now with that reckless, stupid, but nonetheless heroic moment he shared with Lewis and Hubbard. “I'm a conscientious man, a responsible man, maybe even what you'd call a good man—I hope so. But I'm also a careful man, addicted to comfort, with an eye for the safe course.”

Likewise, Wolff's fine stories are modern parables about the mystery of strange encounters that reveal the inmost self. In “The Missing Person,” a priest with a failing vocation is duped by a corrupt fundraiser in Las Vegas, but he offers friendship to a lonely woman. In “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” a mousy college teacher discovers she has been set up as a token candidate for a job by a self-centered friend, yet finds the courage to speak out against her manipulators. “Mend your lives,” she tells them. “You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts, and the strength of your arm. … Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.”

Wolff is fascinated with liars, and many of his stories pivot on their strange manipulations of reality. Through lying, his characters discover what they are, what they want to be, what they could have been but missed, or what they once were and have now lost. In his use of lying, Wolff brilliantly captures the fluidity of experience, the maze of deceit through which his characters search for some redeeming sense of themselves. Lying brings power; often his liars seem more alive, more “true” as human beings, than the tepidly righteous in his stories. In “The Liar,” young James invents preposterously morbid stories about his life after the death of his father. His mother seeks some cure from a doctor, but James's lying remains a mystery—a strength of character. In “Worldly Goods,” a minor car accident turns into a crisis for Davis when he faces the routine deceits practiced in accident reports, insurance claims, repair costs and alleged injuries.

Richard Eder (review date 16 October 1994)

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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 less of the bullets tearing flesh than of the long demoralization, dirt and moral carelessness that wield a high-powered weapon and corrode its safety catch.

In Pharaoh's Army is one of the genuine literary works produced by a war that, perhaps without our quite noticing, has given us several: Michael Herr's Dispatches, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and, only two years ago, his The Things They Carried.Things came 18 years after the war ended; Wolff's book comes 20 years after. If this seems belated or out of date, it is not. Wars can take as long to mature as the olive trees—a quarter of a century—that they destroy. The Red Badge of Courage came 30 years after the Civil War. It was 50 years after Napoleon's invasion of Russia that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace.

Where Herr and O'Brien write with passionate immediacy, Wolff's style is finely distilled, ironic, apparently distant. It is the difference between the romantic and the classical. But out of Wolff's distances come an unexpected tremor, a phrase that rips like lightning, an elusive design that completes itself in sudden revelation.

The 13 sketches are drawn from Wolff's service in Vietnam and narrated in the first person. They have a fictional finish to them, but only one—an elaborate vignette about a bloodthirsty Ivy League spook who is also an aesthete of war—seems excessively contrived. Wolff's narrative has a crystalline transparency; his stories hold us, relinquish us to engaging side-trips, and bring us back as we begin to need to get back. They draw a picture and undermine it just enough to set up tension without destroying it. At the end, a sequence or a phrase will frequently appear that make it evident how much more we were seeing than we were aware of.

Wolff got away from a torturous childhood—he wrote magnificently in This Boy's Life of his mother and his estranged con-man father—by joining the army. It would make him, perhaps, a “man of honor” and provide nutrients for budding as a writer.

He gung-ho'd his way through basic training, parachute school and the Special Forces program. The warrior self-image died there—“I simply ceased to inhabit my pose”—but he went on to officer candidate school, graduating 49th out of the 49 who didn't wash out. One reason he was retained, he suspects, was because he was in charge of writing the traditional graduation skit. “They kept me on to produce a farce,” he writes. “That is how I became an officer in the U.S. Army.” Wolff can do the easy line; he is enough of an artist not to disdain it, because we will need it for the harder lines to come.

In Vietnam, having studied Vietnamese, he was seconded from the Special Forces to act as liaison with a South Vietnamese artillery battalion in the Delta, instead of going north where the heavy fighting took place. The assignment provided him with his vision: the war not as dramatic destruction but as a terrible erosion.

Except for the Tet offensive—of which he gives a wonderfully effective account—there was little frontal confrontation. The Americans had to contend with snipers, ambushes and mines; with a hidden enemy whose depredations were too frequent to allow anything but constant tension, and too sporadic to keep them at any kind of fighting pitch. Visiting the big U.S. base at Dong Tam, he finds mud, dilapidation, purposelessness and the pervading stench of badly kept latrines.

At Dong Tam I saw something that wasn't allowed for in the national myth—our capacity for collective despair. People here seemed in the grip of unshakable petulance. It was in the slump of their shoulders and the plodding way they moved. A sourness had settled over the base, spoiling and coarsening the men. The resolute imperial will was all played out here at empire's fringe, lost in rancor and mud. Here were pharaoh's chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; and all his magnificence dismayed.

This comes in the book's first chapter, but there is much more at work. Wolff and Sgt. Benet, a seasoned black veteran of Korea, are stationed with their Vietnamese battalion, miles away. They lack the base's security and its PX comforts. They visit it to scrounge; what they have to offer by way of trade are Viet Cong trophies: battle-flags, belt-buckles, Chinese rifles. They get them from the Vietnamese troops and provide them with PX cognac, cigarettes and watches. Whether the trophies are authentic is another matter; however, Wolff reasons, they are manufactured by the same artisans who furnish them to the Viet Cong. It is a question, if you will, of bypassing the middleman.

So much for squalor and irony. But there is more. Before we get to Dong Tam we see Wolff and Benet barreling along a jungle road, the floor of their vehicle padded with sandbags as illusory protection against mines. They come to a knot of Vietnamese standing in the road; conceivably it could be an ambush, and they don't slow down. At the last moment the Vietnamese jump out of the way, but their bicycles are crushed. A little slower and they would have been crushed.

A massacre, a tiny My Lai if you like, that didn't happen but could have. Somehow, because there was no actual horror, we see more clearly what underlay the horror. And finally, to hammer in the theme of banality: The reason that Wolff and Benet were speeding down the road was to trade for a color TV at Dong Tam. It is Thanksgiving and they wanted to watch the Bonanza special on something better than their black-and-white set.

Irony often; the tailings from an iron story. It is wrought-iron, bent with a skill and sometimes a beauty that allows it to reflect light, as well as bear weight. Many passages that begin with a sardonic chill end in ghostly compassion. A fellow officer buys seven suits plus sports coats from a Hong Kong tailor. His sartorial future is set, except that he is killed. Wolff tries to imagine friends or relatives in America wearing the suits, “but what I see instead is a dark closet with all his clothes hanging in a row. Someone opens the closet door, looks at them for a time, and closes the door again.”

Tobias Wolff and Nicholas A. Basbanes (interview date 24 October 1994)

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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.)


The experiences recalled by In Pharaoh's Army barely take the author through the age of 22, leaving the 27 succeeding years of his life largely unexamined. “That may be so, but this is going to be my last memoir anyway,” Wolff insists good-naturedly to PW in his comfortable house not far from the campus of Syracuse University, where he has taught literature and writing since 1980.

He sits at ease in his third-floor study, a converted attic that has been sound-proofed and paneled in pine. The room is spacious and spare. The walls are mostly bare, the exception being a framed poster from the film of This Boy's Life autographed by the principals. Two windows overlook a quiet residential neighborhood, but since his desk faces a corner wall, they provide no distraction while he is working. He and his wife, Catherine, a clinical social worker, have three children: Michael, 15, Patrick, 14, and Mary Elizabeth, 5.

Because a writer's life is sedentary, the former Army officer who once took pride in his “command presence” keeps fit and lean by working out on an exercise machine that dominates the middle of the floor, and by taking a daily swim in the university pool. “These have been inwardly exciting times for me, probably the most meaningful of my life,” he notes. “But as you can see, they are quiet, and they don't lend themselves to the kind of narrative treatment that [my] earlier years do.”


Central to Wolff's work ethic is his insistence that his memoirs demand just as much artistry as his fiction and just as much effort to develop. “I did a lot of rewriting on this book, and that is because I intended it as a literary work,” he says pointedly.

In Pharaoh's Army picks up the trail of young Wolff's journey toward manhood in 1965, when he is 18 and at loose ends after being asked to leave prep school for his failing grades; he is fearful that he will face harm from a malicious shipmate if he remains aboard a Coast and Geodetic Survey ship about to sail for the Azores. Rosemary, the peripatetic mother Wolff profiled so splendidly in This Boy's Life, now receives only passing attention—living in Washington, D.C., she offers no resistance when her son announces his intention to join the Army.

Arthur Samuels Wolff, meanwhile, the absentee father of the earlier book—and the shadowy “duke” in older brother Geoffrey Wolff's 1979 memoir, The Duke of Deception—reappears more sharply focused. He enters the story at crucial times, just before Tobias goes off on a combat tour to Vietnam in 1967 and after he returns in 1968, when the two men achieve a degree of rapprochement.

A quintessential con man who spent time in jail for various fraudulent activities, such as passing bad checks, “Duke” Wolff died in 1970. In an odd way, he had inspired his son's decision to join the Army. “I knew I wanted to be a different kind of man, and I had made a more or less conscious attempt to separate myself from him,” Wolff says. “But at the end of his life we accepted each other in a way that we never really had before.”


At the outset of In Pharaoh's Army, the Tobias Wolff we encounter is a soldier eager to take part in the defining event of his generation. “One of my pleasures was to learn I was hardy and capable,” he writes, qualities that earn him an appointment to Officer Candidate School. Trained as a paratrooper, he volunteers for Special Forces and learns to speak Vietnamese. But once “in country,” he becomes an adviser to a Vietnamese battalion in the Mekong Delta, spending his tour on the fringes of combat. Readers in search of riveting battle scenes will have to look elsewhere; of far greater moment is the maturation of Tobias Wolff. The immature lieutenant who arrives in the war zone returns home as a man ready to spend four years at Oxford University (1968-1972) and to begin his life as a writer.

“What the two memoirs show in different ways is someone who's unformed and trying to find a place in the world,” Wolff observes. In his next breath, he again stresses his conviction that In Pharaoh's Army is not a sequel to This Boy's Life.

“I'm a really different person in the new book. I see it as a story about a young man going off to war, and the kind of moral transformations that take place.” Because Wolff never intended to write an encyclopedic account of his military service, he was not hindered by the fact that he never kept a journal. “I'm glad I didn't take notes, because what is essential in that experience is exactly what would have stayed with me. I remembered what I needed to remember.”


As a youngster who had been on the move from state to state with his mother during the 1950s, Wolff began at an early age to believe he could one day become a writer. While a student at Concrete High School in Concrete, Wash., he often wrote papers and essays for other students and felt especially rewarded once when a classmate told him his material was so good he should think about doing it for a living.

His brother Geoffrey stayed with their father after their parents separated, but he encouraged his kid brother's aspirations during their periodic telephone conversations, and—later on, when they got to know each other better—by furnishing Tobias with books to read. In addition to The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff's work includes a biography of Harry Crosby, a collection of essays and three novels. Tobias dedicated In Pharaoh's Army to him, with the phrase, “For my brother, who gave me books.”

Once out of the Army, Wolff was more determined than ever to fulfill his dream of writing; he set aside two to three hours every day to write, even while enrolled as a full-time student at Oxford. When he returned to the United States, he worked at a variety of jobs, including a six-month stint as a cub reporter for the Washington Post. “I was a lousy reporter, and nobody tried to talk me out of leaving,” he says. “The best job I had at this time was waiting on tables in San Francisco. I wrote three novels, one of which, I am embarrassed now to say, was taken in England by Allen and Unwin.” He is unwilling to divulge the title of that book. “It does not represent my mature work and I don't want anybody to read it,” he explains. “Most people's juvenilia doesn't get published, but mine did. Blessedly it died, but it had the virtue, at least, of making me feel that somebody else in the world thought I was a writer.”


The sales of that book also served to buoy his spirits. “I wasn't just a waiter anymore, but a waiter who wrote books that somebody else might even publish.” During his San Francisco period, Wolff began taking graduate courses at Stanford University, and earned an M.A. in English in 1978. It was during this time as well that he became “captivated by stories.” He recalls, “I found stories better suited to my particular gifts at that point. I liked everything about them—the power, the directness, the unity of impression, the ability they have to conjure up a whole world in a few pages and then get something going indelibly in a reader's mind. The novel, on the other hand, implies a kind of stability, a steady fund of experience, a certain place in which one stays for a while. Because of the very nomadic and very fragmentary life I led as a child, perhaps, there was something in my own experience that lent itself to an appreciation of the story, which has a very momentary nature.”

Soon, his dedication began to be rewarded with acceptances by magazines. “The first story I sent out was called ‘Smokers,’ and it was bought by the Atlantic Monthly. That was in 1976; a few months later they took another story called ‘The Liar.’ Pretty soon I had stories in Vogue and TriQuarterly.” A 1981 collection of Wolff's stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was followed in 1984 by The Barracks Thief, a 101-page novel that was inspired by his military experiences and won the PEN/Faulkner Award. Back in the World, a second collection of stories, was published in 1985. Wolff's current contract with Knopf is for two books, and he is working on a still-untitled collection of stories that he hopes will be ready sometime next year.

Having published five books with four different publishing houses (Ecco, Houghton Mifflin, Atlantic Monthly Press and now Knopf), Wolff has worked with his share of editors over the years. “I have been extremely fortunate in my editors. At Ecco, I had the benefit of Daniel Halpern's sharp eye, his ability to imagine a story in different ways. My next book was edited by Nan Talese at Houghton Mifflin. She was an enthusiastic reader, brimming with ideas and encouragement. This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army went through the hands of Gary Fisketjon. Gary is a remarkably painstaking, hard-working editor. When I get my manuscripts back from him, every sentence has some mark of his reaction. Nothing is demanded; everything is suggested.”

In addition, Wolff says that he and his brother Geoffrey exchange manuscripts when they are in their final stages. “We do a lot of line-by-line editing of each others's work, and it's totally honest. It's fairly ruthless, as a matter of fact, but we also let each other know what we've done right.” Wolff's agent of the last 14 years has been Amanda Urban. “Binky is a great friend and a tireless advocate for writers. Once I give a manuscript to her, I relax.”

If there is a thematic connection between Wolff's stories and his two volumes of memoirs, he believes it is his continuing interest in relationships and domestic life. “That sense of kinship is what makes stories important to us.” he writes in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. “Family life has always been great theater, and always will be, like war.” Wolff says he hopes readers will identify a consistency of “tone, feeling and atmosphere” in his books and feel a “certain quality of moral intention” in them that is “characteristic and definitive.”

The writing, meanwhile, has its own agenda, and when a story is ready, it is ready. “I work every day, at least six hours a day,” he says. “Sometimes the pace is glacial. It takes me about three months to get a story to the point where I really like it. When I am working at the top of my form, I see things differently, and there's an excitement that comes when things become clear to me that were not so clear before. I can think of no other word for what happens than revelation.”

James Hannah (essay date 21 November 1994)

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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 to arrive at something fresh … to tell the story in a way that is redolent of the place.”

Even a cursory database search will yield scores of volumes of poetry and almost 200 works of fiction on the Vietnam War, but a vastly larger pool of material is mustered under the Library of Congress designation “Personal Narratives.” These are of all sorts—the stories of soldiers, sailors, doctors, nurses, South Vietnamese farmers, Vietcong officers, people actively engaged in combat, support personnel removed from battle if not from psychological harm's way. Collected by veterans groups, transcribed from oral interviews, published by cooperatives and large and small presses, the autobiographical reflections continue to stream out from sources obscure and celebrated, many of them produced since 1990. Obviously there is still much to say, many who need to speak. And we must hear them for their own good as well as ours: Modern history repeats itself in devastatingly rapid cycles.

To this burgoo of voices, sometimes crude, sometimes artful and crafted, Wolff has now added his own personal narrative. Best known for his short-story collections In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World, and his acclaimed memoir of childhood, This Boy's Life, the almost 50-year-old writer focuses his considerable talent in a lucid, painfully honest assessment of young Lieutenant Wolff, who doubted both the war and his ability to survive it. And when he did survive, though friends died and he himself may have killed, guilt is his leaden legacy. An inheritance that some talk about, others keep in solitude, but that a skilled writer will inevitably examine with his most candid language—even re-examine, in Wolff's case, for his first attempt was apparently something less than he wanted.

For a long time Wolff must have thought he would never find the best, clearest words to explain that young soldier. What the interviewers in Contemporary Literature didn't seem to know is that Wolff had already written a novel about Vietnam, Ugly Rumours, published in 1975 in England. I believe this is the novel Lieutenant Wolff alludes to at the end of In Pharaoh's Army—a novel that the older writer seldom mentions and, I think, considers an example of many of the flaws he detects in novels about Vietnam. The distancing of himself from his first published fiction is painful for the reader; it reminds one of the long and largely unnecessary preface Italo Calvino appends to his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, in which, with the retrospective maturity of a better and different writer, he goes on at length about that distant younger man, and the then-prevailing “neorealism” of which Calvino is now ashamed. Ugly Rumours is simply a young writer's book; it has its problems, such as a dual-character point of view that is a hybrid of nineteenth-century omniscience. As a way of telling the story of Vietnam that Wolff wishes to tell, the artifice proves inadequate, is awkwardly conspicuous and creaky. The plot that follows the two friends through their Vietnam experiences seems too facile. There are added problems of odd mixtures of scene and summary, and the climax of the novel—a double epiphany—is a device more common to short fiction than extended works. Indeed, the essential problem of Ugly Rumours resides in the fact that the material as construed is better suited to a short story or novella. The fabric seems stretched; one can feel the seams beginning to gap. But it is not the catastrophe I think Wolff considers it to be.

The catastrophe would have been for Wolff to have turned away from the subject in despair of it or his abilities. His craft has improved over the years with his work on short fiction. Though he would not avert his gaze from Vietnam, neither would he stare directly: In his stories about soldiers he would dwell on their lives stateside, as he did in “The Other Miller,” or, as with his novella The Barracks Thief, the soldiers who have yet to depart. If he dealt with the influence of the war at all, the soldiers had already returned, as in “Wingfield” and “Soldier's Joy.” In these stories what he wrote about was the loss of innocence and, maybe, its retrieval. When innocence is not retrieved, the result is a camaraderie of soldiers that is cruel and brutal. In one of his most recent stories about soldiers, “Memorial” (which appeared in Granta last year), Wolff for the first time places his young men in Vietnam in combat situations. In this, one of his best stories, the war serves more as a backdrop for an allegory on the nature of Christian sacrifice, redemption and the weakness of the flesh than a setting—a time and a locale—to be addressed on its own terms.

With In Pharaoh's Army, Wolff has reclaimed his subject from flawed fiction and his own reluctance. His earlier problems with craft solved, I suspect the encouragement came from the dithyramb of voices, fictional and factual, that he continued to hear around him (he pays homage in the beginning of “Memorial” to “The Things They Carried”). Whatever the argument over the blurring of fact and fiction debated by critics such as Peter Bailey in the summer 1991 issue of Critique, no one can deny that the best of personal narrative owes its power to the crafts of fiction: selection of detail, evocation of tone, arrangement, emphasis, characterization and the like. As Wolff writes at the front of This Boy's Life concerning the inclusion of some things he had been told were inaccurate: “I've allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

In Pharaoh's Army is not a rehash of Ugly Rumours. There are intimations of scenes here and there reminiscent of Wolff's novelistic places and situations, but the present perspective and form broaden in scope to illuminate the narrator's character before and after the war. By listening to the power and immediacy of his own voice rid of earlier fictional clutter, Wolff has forced himself and his writing to confront Vietnam head-on.

Wolff joins the Army for the usual and wrong reasons. Having decided to become a writer, he craves the experiences of his heroes—Mailer, Shaw, Hemingway. If the key to writing is experience, the key to experience is the Army. But more significantly, Wolff wishes to bring respectability to his name, tarnished heedlessly by his father's life of deceit. For Tobias's dad is his brother Geoffrey's father as well, The Duke of Deception. Though his father claimed military glories, in truth he had never served; this lie is one of countless frauds he practiced with great style and élan. The Army, Tobias believes, will produce in him the “man of honor” his father could never be.

In basic training, Wolff learns he is “hardy and capable,” easily outperforming beefy high school football players. Furthering the romance, Wolff attends jump school, where he meets Hugh Pierce, himself caught up in the excitement of the time. Together they are smart-ass troublemakers; cocky and sure, they volunteer for the Special Forces, still an international outfit with the lingering glory of the O.S.S. and the atmosphere of the Foreign Legion.

But something happens to Wolff. Already doubting his ability to soldier, he overhears a veteran expressing fear of another tour in Vietnam. The boy who survived This Boy's Life, the son of a consummate survivor, Wolff clings to the romance of an idealized government that would never use young men “carelessly” or for “unworthy” ends. “Our trust,” he continues, “was simple, immaculate, heartbreaking.”

A year's leave to study Vietnamese diminishes any residual illusions Wolff had. In an argument with I. F. Stone at brother Geoffrey's place, the young man's intellectual reasons for supporting the war are rendered senseless. Soon abstractions like duty, honor, country—Dulce et decorum est—have withered away, replaced by his real life as lover, student, writer. Not long before he is shipped out, he reads of Hugh Pierce's death in the newspaper.

In Vietnam, all tendencies become obsessions. By scrounging Wolff attempts to make himself a life like the one he has abandoned stateside. But on patrol in the moonscape of a free-fire zone he sees himself through a sniper's scope—too white, tall, foreign—and tries to look innocent, confused, a military automaton unworthy of a bullet. He liberates a puppy from the stewpot only to feel like George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”—the Western imperialist power broker. Unable to read books or write, he burns his first attempt at a novel. His life constricts itself to surviving terror, boredom and guilt with episodes of Bonanza and The Gong Show on his stolen color TV.

An unexploded grenade under his truck causes him to shit his pants; a howitzer dropped from a chopper's sling barely misses; the random touch of an officer's hand selects the man next to him for a fatal mission. The sudden whirlwind of Tet demands that he help destroy a beautiful pristine provincial capital with artillery fire, though “when you're afraid you will kill anything that might kill you.” The Vietnamese soldiers toast his departure by humiliating his captain with a female impersonator and serving Wolff his dog as a delicious stew.

Home again, Wolff is desolate and adrift—no longer a soldier, not yet a civilian. Only physically a survivor with no glory or honor, he seeks out his father in what, I believe, is the most moving portion of the memoir. For the first time in his life, Wolff doesn't judge the old man. Instead, they move carefully with one another in the most merciful of ways. One night the father reads his anxious son The Wind in the Willows.

He read the whole book. It took hours. I got up now and then to grab a beer and refill his glass of ginger ale … but quietly, so he wouldn't break stride. The night deepened around us. Cars stopped going by. We were entirely at home, alone in an island of lamplight. I didn't want anything to change.

And during these days Wolff regains some of himself. Not all, for many things come later and slowly. What Vietnam has splintered may remain fragmented, or, if pieced together, the whole may prove unlovely, threatening collapse, as if the best one can do is jury-rig with duct tape. Wolff says he will always recall Hugh Pierce waiting to parachute. Laughing over his shoulder, Pierce “turns and takes his place in the door, and jumps, and is gone.”

Unflinchingly honest and humane, In Pharaoh's Army is the necessary continuation of Wolff's chronicle of a particular boy's life and its universal appeal in times of peace and war. Here is Tobias Wolff's “Personal Narrative” that amplifies and augments the earlier works of Ron Kovic and Michael Herr he so much admires. Standing squarely on its own, it reminds us of the power of all the other voices. In unison they are overwhelming.

Tim O'Brien writes that “a true war story is never about war. … It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow.” Wolff has given us something true.

Amanda Hopkinson (review date 9 December 1994)

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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 survivor in one of the world's most racist societies. While his history teaches him the languages of expedience (flattery or servility; assurance or companionship), his devout Christianity teaches him to make sacrifices in the all-American ballgame. Without surrendering a single cherished belief, the man conforms to western racism in his treatment of Asian allies, whose actual language—unlike Wolff—he cannot understand but whose subservient role he fully comprehends.

The rebellious subterfuges and sabotages of such as Major Chau are the other side of the coin, in a country drastically militarised and yet scornful of the foreigners' capacity to “turn the people into prostitutes, pimps, pedicab drivers and thieves, and the town … into a nest of burger stands and laundries … such was the power of American dollars and American appetites”. Yet Wolff can satirise those same appetites in himself.

So capitalism works: a television set here for a Chicom rifle there, with the clear intention “to live not as a Vietnamese among Vietnamese but as an American among Vietnamese”. What arises is the most ghoulish of last suppers, a literal turning of tables in which nothing is as it would appear, nor as the American guests intended. It is a measure of Wolff's professional adroitness that the sacrifice of a puppy can mean as much as that of his best friends, who—through arbitrary happenstance—met their own loathsome ends.

Sudden deaths breed philosophical ruminations. Wolff's light and immensely readable style masks the seriousness of his questions. Nothing in the formation of this “trapeze act … family … company of soldiers” had prepared them for what they were to encounter. Morality paled before a reality at once externally gory and inwardly corroding.

Sergeant Benet's nightly perusal of the Bible would probably not have led him to apply the fate of pharaoh's army to the US in Vietnam. But Wolff (a Catholic) has a desire to bear witness as fervent as that of the four evangelists, who likewise took decades to deliver their testimony. He contends that “The resolute imperial will was all played out here at the empire's fringe, lost in rancor and mud”. The war may have been lost in American confusion, but in all the ensuing dismay and recrimination, these memories themselves will not be lost. From a war where survival was all, the memories survive.

Michael Wood (review date 23 December 1994)

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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 him.

The book opens with the ten-year-old boy and his mother looking down at a truck that has crashed off a road in the Rockies. Is the boy upset? His mother thinks so, and he knows she thinks so:

I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn't help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.

A little later, in one of the book's most amazingly understated chapters, the boy has high hopes when his mother is picked up by a couple of blunt and seedy fellows looking for a good time. They promise him a bike, a Raleigh racer. But his mother comes home unhappy, and he consoles her. The next evening he asks about the bike. His mother doesn't answer, and he doesn't ask again. Later still, the young Tobias gets into a fancy prep school by forging his references and his scholastic record; commits a few petty crimes; plans to run away from home, but doesn't. He joins the army, and he finds the war in Vietnam the same way he found the crashed truck at the book's opening: someone else's catastrophe offering him a personal edge of chance. “All I needed was war”, he says, thinking he might “redeem” himself in action. And then: “Careful what you pray for.”

The boy is not mean or crooked. He has tried not to ask his mother for the unaffordable souvenirs, and he knows what the bike is likely to cost her. He would like to be the scholar he pretends to be. His appalling stepfather, Dwight, would seem to justify almost any kind of misdemeanour as a reaction or defence. Nevertheless, the young Tobias is not a good boy, not straight or honourable; he lies a lot, and he is very unscrupulous. Wolff's achievement is to allow all this material to speak for itself, unmoralized—that is, neither attacked nor defended nor treated as a norm. We recognize the child we might have been, or were, or the children we were afraid of, or couldn't interpret.

“It takes a childish or corrupt imagination”, Wolff writes, “to make symbols of other people.” To make only symbols of other people, that is; to see in them nothing but symbols. The writer whose imagination is neither childish nor corrupt, particularly the writer who is dedicated to an art of autobiography that is shaped and streamlined like fiction, can't do without making symbols of other people—and of moments and places and institutions and himself. The trick is to hint at all the other things they are too.

In Pharaoh's Army has all the virtues of Wolff's earlier writing—vivid yet underplayed detail, an extraordinary sense of timing—but the symbol-making has become very strenuous, and the narrator is weirdly addicted to the idea of himself as a good man (“because I was sorry, I am still sorry, God knows I am sorry”). It's as if he wanted to go on being the child of the previous work, only much nicer in the end: his very disreputability a form of moral credit.

Pharaoh's army had a nasty surprise in the Red Sea; and the American army in Vietnam, in Wolff's portrait, is adrift in a swamp, defending a people it cannot distinguish from its enemies, indeed, convinced at times that the people it is defending is the enemy. There are astonishing scenes here: villages blasted by the American Air Force and the Viet Cong; officers and men smuggling and wheeler-dealing for rifles and large-screen televisions; a dog tortured, rescued and finally eaten; a ramshackle village flattened by the gust from a helicopter delivering arms; a compelling portrait of the soldier's bewildered return to civilian life. Characters and contexts come quietly alive, as if history itself was a sort of short-story writer, adept at brief, Chekhovian notations rather than the messy sprawl it is famous for. Wolff, a lieutenant in Pharaoh's army at the time of the Tet Offensive, discovers something that American mythology has long been at pains to deny: “our capacity for collective despair”:

A sourness had settled over the base, spoiling and coarsening the men. The resolute imperial will was all played out here at empire's fringe, lost in rancor and mud. Here were pharaoh's chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; and all his magnificence dismayed.

Wolff tells the story of the flattened village as a story against himself. He could have prevented the calamity, but he let it happen for the sake of seeing a stupid, bullying officer go all the way with an arrogant mistake. “This was my work, this desolation had blown straight from my heart.” More, this desolation is a future haunting. “I couldn't guess how the memory would live on in me, shadowing my sense of entitlement to an inviolable home; touching me, years hence, in my own home, with the certainly that some terrible wing is even now descending, bringing justice.” The memory is linked, through metaphor, to a later moment in the book, where Wolff, studying in Oxford, reads an Anglo-Saxon version of Christ's story of the man who built his house upon a rock. “I copied out my translation in plain English, and thought that, yet, I would do well to build my house upon a rock, whatever that meant.” It should mean, among other things, that the winds of folly and spite and war will have a harder time destroying your home, but Wolff can't quite believe this. He not only tells and moralizes the story of the flattened village, he tells the story of his telling the story, to a sympathetic but uncomprehending woman in San Francisco:

How do you tell such a terrible story? Maybe such a story shouldn't be told at all. Yet finally it will be told. But as soon as you open your mouth you have problems, problems of recollection, problems of tone, ethical problems. How can you judge the man you were now that you've escaped his circumstances, his fears and desires, now that you hardly remember who he was? And how can you honestly avoid judging him? But isn't there, in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it? And isn't it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people's houses apart?

We probably want to say yes to most of that, especially the last two sentences. But there are no such problems in This Boy's Life. And what does “it will be told” mean? No tale has to be told. The man doesn't have to be judged. If his present house is blown away, it won't be justice, it will be the weather or someone else's helicopter. Wolff's paragraph is full of choices presented as necessities, failures to interpret his interpretations. What “the man” needs is to hanker less for goodness, to relish his grovelling (the accusation of self-accusation) a little less.

But, of course, Wolff can get the tone and the ethics right in this book too. He thinks of the death in Vietnam of his friend, Hugh Pierce, and faces again the childishness or corruption of the symbol-making imagination. “I know it's wrong to think of Hugh as an absence, a thwarted shadow. It's my awareness of his absence that I'm describing, and maybe something else, some embarrassment, kept hidden even from myself, that I went on without him.” The embarrassment is ended by finding a story for Hugh, a parachute jump which is also a leap into death and the last thing we see in this book. We watch Hugh's cheerful disappearance, he leaves no trace of a shadow:

Hugh is singing in falsetto, doing a goofy routine with his hands. Just before he reaches the door he looks back and says something to me. I can't hear him for the wind. What? I say. He yells, Are we having fun? He laughs at the look on my face, then turns and takes his place in the door, and jumps and is gone.

Michael O. Garvey (review date 19 May 1995)

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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 once taught to call an examination of conscience, and it's at least arguable that if we could all remember our favorite sins as precisely and our embattled selves as kindly as Wolff does, we might see a revival of the sacrament of reconciliation. In his memories of the Vietnam War, something just as crucial and funny and mysterious as that exercise is going on.

About what principally attracted him to the misadventure, Wolff is characteristically blunt and self-deprecating. A bright kid who wanted to be a writer, he admired such writers as Norman Mailer, Eric Maria Remarque, and Ernest Hemingway, and he believed that he needed experiences like theirs to write about: “I turned into a predator, and one of the things I became predatory about was experience. … Experience was the clapper in the bell, the money in the bank, and of all the experiences the most bankable was military service.”

While there is nothing in subsequent pages to suggest that this adolescent insight is untrue, there is ample and heartbreaking proof that, like most adolescent insights, it is tragically incomplete. After his enlistment and a fantastically incoherent (at least to those of us without military experience) series of training assignments, Wolff found himself just squeaking by in Officer Candidate School on the strength of his talent for writing satire. The school's graduation night traditionally featured a comedy revue for which the post commandant apparently had high expectations. Even Wolff's most disapproving superiors could ill afford a flop, so, he admits, “they kept me on to produce a farce. That was how I became an officer in the United States Army.”

Assigned as an advisor to an ARVN battalion, Wolff took up residence in My Tho, a Mekong Delta town about which some of the book's most luminous and absorbing passages are written. It was in My Tho, for instance, that the twenty-year-old Wolff

took pleasure in being one of a very few white men among these dark folk, big among the small, rich among the poor. My special position did not make me feel arrogant, not at first. It made me feel benevolent, generous, protective as if I were surrounded by children, as I often was—crowds of them, shy but curious, taking turns stroking my hairy arms, and, as a special treat, my mustache. In My Tho I had a sense of myself as father, even as lord, the very sensation that, even more than all their holdings here, must have made the thought of losing this place unbearable to the French.

That frail sensation would be tested, obviously, by what has since become familiar history, and shattered beyond recognition during the Tet offensive, of which Wolff's laconic eight-page account is the most honest and useful description I've yet read. “As a military project,” he concludes,

Tet failed; as a lesson it succeeded. The VC came into My Tho and all the other towns knowing what would happen. They knew that once they were among the people, we would abandon our pretense of distinguishing between them. We would kill them all to get at one. In this way they taught the people that we did not love them and would not protect them; that for all our talk of partnership and brotherhood we disliked and mistrusted them, and that we would kill every last one of them to save our own skins. To believe otherwise was self-deception. They taught that lesson to the people, and also to us. At least they taught it to me.

That essay on Tet, “The Lesson,” is as close as In Pharaoh's Army ever comes to a grand, historical assessment of the war, and even here, Wolff refuses to depart from the gritty surface of the particular. Elsewhere, his description of the personnel of a U.S. base near My Tho eloquently magnifies the local desolation:

In their anger at being in this place and their refusal to come to terms with it they had created a profound, intractable bog. Something was wrong with the latrine system; the place always stank. They hadn't even bothered to plant any grass. At Dong Tam I saw something that wasn't allowed for in the national myth—our capacity for collective despair. People here seemed in the grip of an unshakable petulance. It was in the slump of their shoulders and the plodding way they moved. A sourness had settled over the base, spoiling and coarsening the men. The resolute imperial will was all played out here at the empire's fringe, lost in rancor and mud. Here were pharaoh's chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; and all his magnificence dismayed.

But war is often beautiful, too. When the morning fog lifted over Fredricksburg, Virginia, and General Robert E. Lee saw the sunlight flashing on the bayonets of the Union soldiers he was preparing to kill, he famously remarked that it is well God made war so terrible lest we might grow too fond of it. Wolff is too good at his craft to neglect the glints of human splendor which flash on the surface of lethal steel. In an astonishing essay entitled “Duty,” he presents Sergeant Fisher, a frightened and inarticulate young man who resists the temptation to desert a doomed position. The sole American in a village likely to be overrun at any minute by the Viet Cong, Fisher is last glimpsed by Wolff from the window of a departing helicopter. “He didn't see me. He was busy making assurances, giving hope with his calm voice and the fact of his abiding presence. Duty had swallowed him whole, loneliness, fear, and all. His path was absolutely clear. I almost envied him.”

Among the reasons In Pharaoh's Army is such a fine war story is Tobias Wolff's almost magical capacity for making such an emotion imaginable.

Pat C. Hoy II (review date summer 1995)

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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 did not feel equal to it. I felt morally embarrassed.”

Outside that family circle Wolff had trouble holding up his end of a conversation; he said embarrassing and hostile things without awareness of what he was doing, and his laugh sounded “bitter and derisive” even to himself. “Lonesome as I was,” Wolff writes, “I made damn sure I stayed that way.” He closes the memoir with a “last shot,” a powerful tribute to a special friend lost in the war.

In countless ways all of us as soldiers experienced what Wolff did. There was no nation to come back to, no public ceremony of acceptance. The nation was in turmoil, manning the barricades, unsure of itself. And for reasons we did not ourselves understand, many of us who came home could not share our experiences with families, could not tell our stories. There was no honor in them, no sense that we had been out doing work essential to our well-being or the nation's. We had simply done our duty and found it tainted.

Wolff's memoir is the most balanced, unapologetic account of the war we are likely to see. We hear his reasons for going, see him through his preparation, and experience the beauty of his stories of friendship, as well as his stories of corruption. Often friendship and corruption go hand in hand. His portrait of a Harvard-bred foreign-service officer reveals Wolff's own susceptibility to that man's privileged life, privilege that expressed itself in lavish, courtly parties leading to evenings of debauchery in Saigon and in a kind of cultured fluency with Vietnamese life that could hold even the Vietnamese captive. But Wolff could see past the charm, finally, into the man's deeper character, and what he found enraged him. What he found was that Pete's “demonstration of mastery” of the Vietnamese way of life required that others in his presence be stripped of mastery, “made helpless, reduced to spectators.” Wolff's is an unusually clear portrait of civilians who preyed on the war's career benefits without having their reputations tarnished by association.

In Pharaoh's Army is so perfectly crafted that in the end we are left questioning the literal truth of Wolff's stories. But we end up knowing that literal truth matters less than the truth a polished story can reveal.

Wolff's account of the fateful Tet offensive in 1968 might just as well stand for the war itself. It works offhandedly through a host of clichés—about destroying villages to save them, about the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the incompetence of the South Vietnamese army, the absurdity of war, any war—and yet his account never mentions these clichés. In Wolff's details, we see where such clichés might have come from, but he skips over the superficial, making us look directly at the complications so often masked by simplification. Listen as Wolff reflects, reconfiguring and assessing the Tet offensive he had survived:

How about the VC? I used to wonder. Were they sorry? Did they love their perfect future so much that they could without shame feed children to it, children and families and towns—their own towns? They must have, because they kept doing it. And in the end they got their future. The more of their country they fed to it, the closer it came.

As a military project Tet failed; as a lesson it succeeded. The VC came into My Tho and all the other towns knowing what would happen. They knew that once they were among the people we would abandon our pretense of distinguishing between them. We would kill them all to get at one. In this way they taught the people that we did not love them and would not protect them; that for all our talk of partnership and brotherhood we disliked and mistrusted them, and that we would kill every last one of them to save our own skins. To believe otherwise was self-deception. They taught that lesson to the people, and also to us. At least they taught it to me.

In this assessment Wolff honors the enemy's shrewdness, looks into its motives and effectiveness. What he does is uncharacteristic of what we did during that protracted war. Jonathan Shay reminds us over and over that the devaluing and dehumanizing of the enemy that was so much a part of the experience of Vietnam, contributed to severe combat trauma and the long suffering it effects. Such devaluations contributed as well to our defeat. We never learned what it might cost to win the hearts and minds of those people. We seemed not to have it in us to understand them. They were, Shay's men told him time and again, just “gooks”—not shrewd, indefatigable warriors.

Jay Rogoff (review date summer 1996)

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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 lose my nerve, then they jumped out of the way. I could hear them shouting and then I couldn't hear anything but the clang and grind of metal as the wheels of the truck passed over the bicycles. Awful sound. When I looked in the rearview most of the peasants were staring after the truck while a few others inspected the wreckage in the road.

This remarkable passage signals many of the complex attitudes, deceptions and self-deceptions in this book. In depicting the “peasants” (not villagers or people) as deliberately choosing not to hear, Wolff attributes to them the same kind of ignorant, subhuman “otherness” that Orwell attaches to the Indian villagers in “Shooting an Elephant.” Wolff can blame the accident not on himself but on the truck, as if it had a will of its own. Without a word about the morality or immorality of the war, he has created a dramatic emblem of American power blundering its way into an alien land and wrecking the lives of the people it intended to save.

And First Lieutenant Wolff's urgent mission, demanding the “nerve” to drive over bicycles and down mine-infested roads? To procure a color TV from the American base at Dong Tam and take it back to My Tho, where, living in relative comfort far from most of the fighting, he is assigned to the South Vietnamese army. At stake is a special two-hour Thanksgiving episode of Bonanza, “a story of redemption—man's innate goodness brought to flower by a strong dose of opportunity, hard work, and majestic landscape.” Wolff has immediately immersed us in a fully imagined, fully realized world, complete with political and racial complexities and hostilities, both overt and implied.

The splendor of In Pharaoh's Army emanates from the way the chapters of this memoir behave collectively like a cycle of fully realized short stories, each sculpted and shaped, with its own logic, its own climax and satisfactions. His characterization of himself as both narrator and officer is a complex and wonderful accomplishment, and we watch through his narrative control the growing maturity and sophistication with which the character Wolff views the war and the world around him, and the increasing disgust he has at various times for the war, the Vietnamese and himself.

Because he is hard on himself, we trust Wolff's narration: he reminds us continually—and not always comically—of his unsuitability for command, of his general laziness and of his dismay at Vietnamese indifference to his American superiority. He candidly takes responsibility for his share of the devastation, and when he occasionally steps back to analyze, as at the end of “The Lesson,” a shocking account of the destruction and death visited on My Tho by the Tet Offensive, the cracking of his illusions is almost audible: “As a military project Tet failed; as a lesson it succeeded. The VC … knew that once they were among the people we would abandon our pretense of distinguishing between them. We would kill them all to get at one. In this way they taught the people that we did not love them … and that we would kill every last one of them to save our own skins.”

The craft of this memoir should not surprise us, coming as it does from one of our best short story writers, and the effects are consistently marvelous. A chapter called “Close Calls” meditates upon the men who “have been killed instead of you. … They have been killed in place of you—in your place,” and it ends with the image of the huge wardrobe bought cheaply in Hong Kong by another lieutenant, a man casually picked for a fatal mission because he happened to stand nearer the reach of the commanding colonel than Wolff:

I sometimes tried to imagine other men wearing Keith's suits, but I couldn't bring the images to life. What I see instead is a dark closet with all his clothes hanging in a row. Someone opens the closet door, looks at them for a time, and closes the door again.

The calm chill and the unbearable anonymity of that “someone” ripple out from the war and disturb the holy privacy of daily human life in a way that recalls the ending of one of Wolff's best early stories, “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke.”

When Wolff calls attention to his fictional technique at the end of “Old China,” he demonstrates the porosity of that membrane between fiction and fact. In this episode, Wolff has gradually realized that his Foreign Service friend Pete Landon's motivation in becoming an expert on food, wine, the Vietnamese language and fine porcelain springs not out of a love of Vietnamese culture, “not from mastery of this situation but from our observation of his mastery. … And his demonstration of mastery required that we be stripped of it, made helpless, reduced to the role of spectators.” Without Wolff's knowledge or permission, Pete tries to use his pull to get him reassigned to the front “for your own good,” claiming he has it too soft at My Tho and is “missing out on all the fun.” Wolff, with only a month remaining on his tour, escapes the transfer and exacts a horrifying vengeance on Pete by carefully, deliberately crushing an antique porcelain bowl (“‘Guard this with your life,’ he said. ‘It's worth more.’”) before forwarding it to him via military mail. But here Wolff breaks off and writes a second ending:

Really, now. Is the part about the bowl true? Did I do that?

No. Never. I would never deliberately take something precious from a man—the pride of his collection, say, or his own pride—and put it under my foot like that, and twist my foot on it, and break it.

No. Not even for his own good.

Like the smashed bicycles at the opening of the book, the broken bowl evokes American force ignorant of the havoc it wreaks for the good of an ancient culture. And maybe, at the risk of oversimplicity, we can also read in Wolff's restraint his apology for his role in the war's destruction. But clearly he has captured the range of complex feeling attendant on the impulse to vengeance and the nature of regret. The passage proves both the slippery relationship between fiction and memoir, and the profound emotional satisfactions of a first-rate writer's taking up the tools of one to give us the other.

James Hannah (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18934

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 Guggenheim and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His individual stories had been published in prestigious magazines and collected in anthologies of prize-winning fiction.

Just as stories within collections are compared with one another, critics naturally compare story collections. Some reviewers admired the obvious differences between Wolff's two books; others were disconcerted and argued that the first collection was the better of the two. Overall, the reactions were favorable. If some were hesitant, none despaired of Wolff's talent and so looked forward to his third collection.

Mona Simpson found the stories in Back in the World to be “in a more somber mode. … A plainer, more subdued quality of language is immediately apparent.”1 She thinks the opening sentences of the stories display voices that “feel omniscient, universal, with biblical resonance” (Simpson, 38). She notes that “Wolff works with the same thematic concerns, the same passion for moral questions, but his fictional canvas is sparer and simpler. He has, for the most part, abandoned the domestic, the familiar righteous citizen, and all his incumbent irony. He has chosen more dramatic, emblematic characters” (Simpson, 38).

What Mona Simpson says is true. Wolff's gift for probing the paradoxical, commonplace mysteries of life is intact. His stories are still modern in approach, though more of them are downright pessimistic, particularly “Sister,” “Soldier's Joy,” and “Leviathan.” But many of the stories resonate with themes of duty and responsibility for the lives of others: “Coming Attractions,” “The Missing Person,” “The Poor Are Always with Us,” “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” and “The Rich Brother.” And among these last stories, Wolff has created his most obvious moral parables. Taken together they are like a jeremiad; they amplify the words of Mary in “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”: “‘Mend your lives’” (Garden [In the Garden of the North American Martyrs] 135).

Wolff was aware of the differences between the collections. “I think the stories [of Back in the World] are connected by subject matter and style. The two collections seem to me to be different. … I wanted a unity of voice and perspective from one story to the next. I wanted you to read it like a novel, with the same kind of narrative presence in each story.”2

To achieve this “narrative presence”—what Simpson describes as “omniscient”—Wolff eliminated stories told from the first-person point of view. Where four of the dozen stories in In the Garden were in the first person, all of the stories in Back in the World are in the third-person limited omniscient. This definitely shades the thematic concerns and voices in the collection.

The title of the collection originates in a phrase American soldiers in Vietnam used to refer to their lives back home. Wolff explains the curious use of a phrase from a single story to title an entire collection: “It wasn't just Vietnam. ‘The world’ is what people in religious orders—nuns and priests—call secular life. That's the way Jesus talks about it: The world's yoke is heavy, my yoke is light. So ‘back in the world’ is an expression which has many connotations. I thought it was an expression that caught the spirit of a lot of the stories” (Lyons and Oliver, 9).


As in previous stories with children as central characters—“Smokers” and “The Liar”—Jean in “Coming Attractions” is precariously balanced between childhood and maturity, at the juncture of the self and its relationship to the world beyond it. “Smokers” concludes with “the boy” having just betrayed his conscience to enact his plan for personal power. James in “The Liar” turns his lies outward for the benefit of others and so shows promise of breaking the grip of destructive self-absorption.

Ensnared between the worlds of childhood naivete and adult complexity, Wolff's children are further confused by the conditions of their home lives. In “Smokers” the young boy actively denies his middle-class past by reinventing his parents. In “The Liar” it is the death of James's father that precipitates his elaborate lies.

Jean's rite of passage begins as the reader learns the details of her 15-year-old life. Alone in the movie theater where she works, Jean is a confusion of child and adult. We learn that she and her friend shoplift “everything else that wasn't bolted down,” in what for Jean must be a means of asserting herself as well as disdaining adult conventions.3 Yet when she pretends an abandoned coat is a body, she is scared by her own imagination.

A victim of volatile teenage sensibilities, Jean locks herself in the absent manager's office for safety, only to open the door when she begins to feel trapped. Uncertain, insecure, lonely, bored—a tumult of emotions—Jean phones her father but reaches his new wife, and the reader understands a source of Jean's confusion.

At first the cruel thoughtless child, Jean remains silent when Linda answers. But then “she heard the fear in Linda's voice like an echo of her own … she couldn't do it” (Back [Back in the World], 5). Her quite sudden sympathy for Linda's fear, her ability to recognize her own weakness in another, lies in sharp contrast to her earlier playacting and silly, risky shoplifting. The story now very much becomes one of the seesaw actions of a young child/woman.

Debunking the myth of the cruel stepmother, Wolff presents a woman who is nice and understanding. Still, it is her father to whom Jean wishes to speak, and it becomes apparent that he will not allow himself to be disturbed by serious problems. Linda reminds her that her father is “more of a good news person” (Back, 7). More mature at this moment than her father, Jean realizes the truth of what Linda says. With this exchange Wolff introduces a further thematic complexity. Jean's father, her mother, Mr. Love, and Mr. Munson are adults who exhibit childish tendencies. Wolff reveals the selfish, uncertain, confused sensibilities residual in many adults.

Thwarted, trapped by her father's foolish rules, Jean slams down the receiver only to phone her home a few moments later. In a conversation with Tucker, her younger brother, Jean learns of her mother's irresponsibility. Out on a date with “Uncle Nick,” she has yet to return home. Jean soothes the boy, and her wisdom of the moment helps maintain Tucker's calm. She provides him with the emotional comfort her mother, the adult, should have supplied.

Failing to find the number of her English teacher—with whom she has either had an affair or has fantasized about having one—she chooses a name for a prank call. One moment the responsible adult with her brother, she turns her anger with her parents—her sense of being victimized and trapped—on a stranger over whom she can exert some juvenile power.

Having phoned a Mr. Love (an interesting choice), Jean pretends the man has won a prize. When the man grows wary of Jean's personal questions about his love life, she suddenly blurts out her transgressions to the stranger—her thefts and her licentiousness. Mr. Love, like Linda, doesn't conform to expectations. Instead of slamming down the receiver, he becomes Jean's confessor, the perforated telephone receiver the grille in the confessional.

Becoming childish himself at times, admitting his naivete has caused others to take advantage of him, he listens to Jean's tale of adultery with Mr. Hopkins. When Mr. Love suggests she attend church, Wolff lambastes the contemporary Catholic mass by having Jean disparage an Easter service where the priest played “a tape of a baby being born, with whale songs in the background” (Back, 11).

For a while completely honest, Jean drifts into playacting again with stories of the cruel games she plays with Mr. Hopkins, her tattoo, and her motto “live fast, die young” (Back, 12). Then, desirous of an adult's attention, she says she's “totally out of control” (Back, 11) and asks Mr. Love to bawl her out.

When the arrival of Mr. Munson, the theater manager, interrupts her phone call, Wolff resumes his theme of confusion between the worlds of adults and children. Once a good, athletic skater, Mr. Munson comes from skating at the mall with a broken ankle and bandaged forehead. Upset with himself, his age, his lost grace, Munson foolishly blames his karma. As with the other adults in the story, Mr. Munson is not a very good model for a 15 year old. If the usual initiation story involves the progression of a childish perspective to a more mature one—the progress from simplicity to complexity—then Wolff wishes to redefine this particular progression in “Coming Attractions.” In Wolff's view adults often regress: they act childishly out of selfishness, despair. Children, then, on the cusp of adulthood, sometimes act with a spontaneous sensitivity, courage, and selflessness. Perhaps the tendency of adults is to act like adults and children like children, but chronological age is no sure marker of maturity.

The last scene begins with Jean's unsympathetic reaction to Mr. Munson's pain and anguish. Insensitive for the moment, incredulous of such silliness in an adult, Jean dismisses his pleas for understanding, pleas not dissimilar to those she just made to Mr. Love.

At home alone, with Tucker in bed, Jean reads the love letters her father still sends her mother, letters that betray Linda. Disgusted by the correspondence, baffled by her own sexuality, Jean undresses and playacts a prostitute in front of a mirror. Interrupted by the awakened and frightened Tucker, she becomes comforting and sensible, promising him a special day tomorrow if he'll go back to sleep.

Jean goes outside and descends into the icy water of the apartment complex's pool to retrieve a discarded bicycle Tucker had mentioned to her earlier. This is the first action the reader sees Jean undertaking for another. The scene is reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence's “The Horse-Dealer's Daughter,” where the reluctant doctor enters the pond to save Mabel from drowning and emerges in a moment of baptism and rebirth for them both: “At last, after what seemed an eternity … he rose again … gasped … and knew he was in the world.”4 Jean's descent into the numbing water and struggle with the dead weight of the bike, her emergence, choking from the cold grip of the pool, is a symbolic rite of passage, of rebirth, that Wolff has prepared for throughout the story.

But Wolff eloquently leaves Jean only half-reborn, still suspended on the edge of the pool, half in, half out of the water. “In a little while she would pull it out. No problem—just as soon as she got herself back together” (Back, 16). The reader has great hope for Jean, and yet Wolff has argued that life's “Coming Attractions” are an uncertain mixture of childish and adult sensibilities in a state of flux. The reader believes that Jean will leave the pool, the bicycle in tow, but children-as-adults and adults-as-children, Wolff says, are ways of the world.

Though the central characters in Wolff's three stories about young people—“Smokers,” “The Liar,” and “Coming Attractions”—are confused and often resort to lying to create supposed adult personae, “Coming Attractions” provides more insight into the complexity of the dilemma. By exploring Jean through her relationship with the adults around her, Wolff conveys a sense of how muddled the adult-child world really is. And yet within his realistic method, Wolff concludes the story with an emblematic baptism evoking the more parable-like qualities of “In the Garden” and “Worldly Goods.” The rite of passage aspect of the story compares well with John Updike's “A & P,” James Joyce's “Araby,” and Sherwood Anderson's “I Want to Know Why.”


One of the longest in the collection, “The Missing Person” is a religious story. On one level, it concerns Father Leo, a “missing person” who repurchases the loving kindness he has misplaced over years of bitter career disappointments and the resultant cynicism. On another level, Wolff uses Father Leo's plight as a means of expressing what Wolff considers to be missing from the contemporary American Catholic Church.

As a youth Father Leo chose the priesthood as a vocation for its lure of romance and ministration to the suffering. Only slightly less extravagant than Emma Bovary in her love of the mystical and exotic in religion, Leo imagined himself a self-sacrificing missionary among the Aleuts, creating “a life full of risk among people who needed him and were hungry for what he had to give” (Back, 19). But shortly after his ordination he is sent to Seattle to manage Church bazaars and to visit the infirm. After serving the senile parish priest for years, Leo is pained to see among the priest's papers scathing and often false reports of Leo's abilities. Despairing, Leo considers his youthful love of a woman he would have married “if he had not felt even greater helplessness before his conviction that he should become a priest” (Back, 20). For Leo, as for Emma Bovary, love and religion are mysteries. But where Flaubert condemns Emma's confusion of the two, Wolff seems to encourage their confluence in Father Leo. The priest has turned the mysteries of his heart into an answer to God's call. His love has become his religion, and his religion—at least at the outset—is loving self-sacrifice. Where Emma's desires are always voluptuously egotistical, Father Leo's are to aid the needy.

Passed over to replace the parish priest, Leo is chosen to teach religion in a Church school. Beginning uncertainly, he soon comes to flourish among the children he recognizes as needing his direction. Unfortunately, Leo does not keep up with the changing curriculum and is fired after an overseer finds his “ideas … obsolete and peculiar” (Back, 22). Here Wolff begins to portray Father Leo as antithetical to the worldly concerns of the modern Church. Ministering to the students, a good teacher who makes contact with them, he is fired because he sees no reason to update his methods. When Leo is sent to the dead-end job of chaplain at the convent of Star of the Sea, the reader learns that the previous chaplain ran off with a nun. Embittered at reaching the end of his career while still a middle-aged man, and surely far from his romantic early goals, Leo knows that this is “a job for an old priest, or one recovering from something: sickness, alcohol, a breakdown” (Back, 22).

It is through the antics of the nuns at the convent that Wolff takes his sharpest jabs at the contemporary Church. “Something had gone wrong at Star of the Sea” (Back, 22), Wolff writes, where nuns are either decidedly sad and silent or elated and boisterous. Though Leo is to be their confessor, many of the nuns meet his presence with open derision. The nuns, once cloistered in meditation, now go forth in the world and become local disc jockeys and travel agents. “The director of novices described herself as a ‘Post-Christian’” (Back, 23).

Perceiving the depths of the trouble, Leo complains to the Mother Superior, who quickly tires of him. Instead “she lived in her dream of what the convent was … a perfect song, all voices tuned sweet and cool and pure, rising and falling in measure” (Back, 24). (This harmony of song, with voices “tuned” and “perfect,” is reminiscent of “The Liar,” in which James's mother wants him to sing in harmony with the family and in which he does sing a solo that soothes the passengers on the bus.) Irritated with him, the Mother Superior first suggests he might want another job—both of them knowing this position is the last he will ever be offered. She then recommends that Leo begin helping Jerry, the convent fund-raiser. Leo is glad to accept this strange offer, for “he would be getting out every day, away from this unhappy place” (Back, 25).

Certainly Wolff is taking a religiously conservative view of the Church. Where Easter Mass in “Coming Attractions” had degenerated into a tape of a baby crying and a whale singing, the convent here is replete with worldly nuns who ignore their spiritual duties. Wolff's opinion that the Church has lost the ideals of self-sacrifice and ministration to those in need is an abstract generalization he uses Father Leo to represent. Feeling himself at the end of a mostly useless career and in an untenable job, Leo abandons the Church for the world when he becomes Jerry's partner in extorting money from contributors.

A professional confidence man, Jerry reminds the reader of Mr. Tweed in “Maiden Voyage.” Tired and dispirited, Leo warms quickly to Jerry's ebullient personality. When Jerry tours the dilapidated convent with Leo in tow, the reader perceives the decay of the Church—“cracked foundation,” “old pipes,” “scummy water in the vast basement” (Back, 25-26). As Jerry schemes for the improvement of the convent, he becomes Wolff's outlandish savior of the Church—from the Church's modern point of view. Who better to represent the Church in the world than a huckster?

Like the cynical Tweed, Jerry is gauche and crass, a money changer in the temple with “rings spark[ling] on his thick, blunt fingers” (Back, 25) and his face made over with “little scars under his eyes” (Back, 26). He is artful, with a rather crude ability to lie to donors directly and outrageously. Never as urbane and glib an evil as Tweed, Jerry is the essential “root of all evil.” Overt, insatiable, delighting in manipulation, submerged in public and private lies, he has obliterated his person for money; indeed, he is one of the three “missing persons” in the story, along with Leo and, later, Sandra. That the Church would select such a person, oblivious to everything but his power to bring in cash, is one of Wolff's strongest indictments of the modern Church.

Thwarted by circumstances, Father Leo allows Jerry to become his corruptor. Jerry likens them to outlaw partners fleecing the foolish. As Jerry lies to wealthy patrons by playing on their own disappointments and weaknesses, Leo sits silently by, head bowed, the official sanction to the extortion. Leo likes Jerry, who acts in the world and gets something done, and so is very unlike Leo, who has been unable to realize even the simple dream of becoming a good and useful priest. Soon he is rationalizing Jerry's conduct. “They [the donors] had plenty of money, too much money. … Anyway, Jerry was a performer, not a liar. Lying was selfish, furtive, low. What Jerry did was reckless and grand, for a good cause” (Back, 28). Further corrupted, “Father Leo came to need these pleasures, most of all the pleasure of watching Jerry have it his way with people who were used to having it their way” (Back, 29). He thinks that people, seeing him happy, now say of him: “What a jolly priest. … He wanted to look like someone with good news, not like someone with bad news” (Back, 31).

After Jerry tells Leo he is bad as Jerry and fills Leo's head with a mixture of lies and half-truths about his own life, Leo tells Jerry that he became a priest because he murdered a man who was beating a woman. The reader can compare this outrageous lie with the opening of the story and the two real reasons the young romantic chose the Church: to sacrifice himself and to serve suffering humanity.

If at this point Father Leo has begun to “go missing” as a person himself, it is his trip with Jerry to Las Vegas that allows him to recover himself and, by extension, his hope for the Church. And there is no better place than Las Vegas at Thanksgiving as a backdrop for the story's end. A city created and controlled by mobsters, an artificial city of the plain devoted entirely to Mammon, Las Vegas lives on the weaknesses of the flesh, the flagging of the spirit. It is the abode of “missing people.” As Sandra, the third missing person in the story, later says about Las Vegas, “When you reach a certain point it's the logical place to come” (Back, 49).

With Jerry quickly gone missing completely, absorbed into the garish, debilitating city, Leo soon encounters another of the city's visitors, Sandra. Repelled by the badly sunburned older woman, who is in obvious need of conversation, Leo is too self-absorbed with his concern for Jerry to pay her any attention. The second time she seeks him out, Leo, who is not wearing his clerical collar, tells her his name is Slim and again puts off her need to confide in him. But on returning to his room Leo experiences a crucial event that redirects his attention. Victimized by a hotel burglar who has stolen the money Leo had saved by not gambling, Leo “sat on the bed. The hollowness spread downwards into his chest and leg. … He began to talk to himself. … He struck himself over the heart. He gripped his shirt in both hands and tore it open to his waist. He struck himself again. Back and forth he walked” (Back, 42). Later he decides not to call the police, because “[t]hey would ask him questions; he felt uneasy about that, about explaining his presence in Las Vegas” (Back, 43). And Leo is concerned that if he brings Jerry into it, the police would become interested in the con man with an alias.

Though he has not had a complete epiphanic revelation of his straits, when he next meets Sandra, he expresses his concern for her for the first time by suggesting she get in out of the sun. Then, perceiving her loneliness, he sees “no reason to hurt her feelings” (Back, 44) and keeps up his end of the conversation. When he tells her he is a priest, her angry, disbelieving response is confirmation of how far he has gone missing himself and how much a part of Las Vegas he seems. “You're no priest. … If you were a priest, you wouldn't have let me go on like I did. You wouldn't have let me make a fool of myself” (Back, 45). Previously unable to explain to anyone why he is in Las Vegas, Leo can only admit, “I'm a little confused right now” (Back, 45).

When Jerry calls Leo and admits he has lost all his money and much of the convent's, Leo begs the con man to return with him to Seattle, where Leo says he will take the blame. Jerry refuses and so remains a missing person. Immediately after, Sandra calls, frightened of the hotel burglar and noises at her door. She asks Leo, as a priest, to come to her aid. Reluctant, Leo pounds his pillow and then tells her he is on his way. Thus Wolff has Father Leo recover himself as he tries to help another missing person. Alone with Leo, Sandra confesses her previous lies about being happy in Las Vegas. When Leo admits it is an awful place, Sandra points out that many people wash up here finally; it is a repository for people gone missing.

When Leo grows more vitriolic in his condemnation of Las Vegas—and by extension, the world—as a “dangerous” place where “everything is set up so you can't win” (Back, 50), Sandra tries to temper his anger by reminding him that some do win. Leo counters that he has yet to see any winners.

But coming quickly away from a wholesale jeremiad, Leo thinks of his newfound notoriety with the nuns as a murderer and smiles. Then, swiftly, he becomes intimate in his conversation with Sandra. At first pitying her, when she asks if, hypothetically, he could love her, Leo cagily admits he could. Then he admits he admires her spirit in coming to such a city alone. When they share a laugh, the human connection is finally made between them. Leo continues to talk to her. “He did not think, he just listened to himself. His voice made a cool sound in the stuffy room” (Back, 53). Leo's words become the litany of a priest, the soothing comfort of a ritual, his presence more important than what he says (like the song of James in “The Liar”). All through the night, Father Leo stands watch over the sleeping woman like a spirit intervening between the world and the vulnerability of innocence. He imagines, finally, a coyote out in the desert beyond with a rabbit in its mouth. Although this image is part of his earlier romantic view of the priesthood—suffering in an exotic place—he has fulfilled the most important, and up to now unrealized, obligation he first set for himself: to live a “life full of risk among people who needed him and were hungry for what he had to give” (Back, 20).

This story is one of Wolff's most religious. It takes the form of a diatribe against the Catholic Church in America with an illustration in Father Leo of how the Church can be saved. With its obviously parabolic qualities of moral instruction, the story can be compared with “Worldly Goods,” “In the Garden,” and ““The Liar.”” For Wolff, the modern Church is in decay. Too involved in the fashions of the world, the Church must anchor itself in the solid nature of men like Leo—that is, men like Leo as he is at the story's end. Instead of abetting missing persons, like Jerry and the worldly nuns, the Church must recover the lost through priests like Leo. Unless this happens, the Church becomes, collectively, missing—lost to itself and its supplicants.

The story of the Church's recovery is embodied in the personal narrative of Father Leo's rehabilitation, his recovery of the lost ideals of his youth. For Christianity begins with one person suffering for another, with one brother serving as another's keeper. How else to bring home a wayward Church than through the redemption of one person's soul?


One of Wolff's shortest stories, “Say Yes” carries an interesting variation on one of his most prevalent themes—the inability of one person to know and understand another fully and the resultant mystery that enshrouds and often romanticizes the unknowable. This story is reminiscent of several permutations of this theme in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs—notably “Next Door,” “Face to Face,” and “Smokers.” But the brevity of “Say Yes,” its understated style and cryptic tone recall the works of minimalists such as Mary Robison and Raymond Carver, Wolff's close personal friend and colleague.5 While the theme is certainly historically one of Wolff's concerns, his minimalist tendency toward terseness and the symbolic expansion of the most mundane of objects and events clearly reflects contemporary literary influences.

The reader of Back in the World has only to compare this story with the preceding one, “The Missing Person,” to see the differences between Wolff's usual attention to character and thematic development in scenes and this quick evocation of the same. Wolff, a writer of modern short stories that dismiss nineteenth-century introductory explications and usually achieve closure shy of completely explaining themes, is no Peter Taylor who writes from this earlier tradition. But neither is Wolff a protégé of the minimalist school begun with Hemingway and most recently manifested with Carver and Robison. And yet “Say Yes” does remind the reader of a more quotidian version of the battle between the two lovers in Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which brevity is achieved through the ruthless paring away of extraneous details. In both, the sparse background becomes symbolically meaningful; the dialogue is rendered in terse sentences; the core of the dilemma remains unspoken. All of this, like the theme itself, remains cryptic and elliptical, demanding that the reader take an even more active part in supplying the missing information.

The unnamed husband helps his wife wash dishes. He is arrogant in his complacency and self-assuredness. He believes he understands her completely and so can interpret the smallest nuances of her facial expressions. He is confident and certain of his role in their marriage, though a bit manipulative, as if he is the more intelligent, more orderly of the two.

When the complication is introduced that will bring about the resultant crisis—should blacks and whites marry—the husband is firm in his conviction that only people of the same culture, people who share the same language, can find understanding and familiarity together. “A person from their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other” (Back, 58).

Angered by what she terms his “racism” and speaking out for the power of love to diminish such differences, her growing tension is symbolized by the handling of the dishes she is washing. The increased distance between them is represented by the dishwater, which “had gone flat and grey” (Back, 58).

When Ann cuts herself on a submerged knife, the husband springs into action, but it is a patronizing and studied response and recalls his earlier thoughts about his predictable role in the marriage. “He hoped that she appreciated how quickly he had come to her aid. He'd acted out of concern for her … but now the thought occurred to him that it would be a nice gesture on her part not to start up the conversation again, as he was tired of it” (Back, 59). For him, their relationship should be one of quid pro quo in which each understands the nuances of the other.

Not only does Ann not drop the subject, but she brings it to a head when she asks him if he would have married her had she been black. Seeing himself as the voice of reason in both a patronizing way and, for Wolff's purpose, reacting against her passion—always the darker, more dangerous, and uncontrollable part of the self—the husband gets Ann to admit that this is an impossible hypothetical. “He took a deep breath. He had won the argument” (Back, 60).

But Ann, adamant and unbending before his powers of logic, continues until he admits that he would not have married her had she been black, and thus from an unfamiliar background. Indeed, what is at play here is the old saw, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But with Wolff it is not contempt as much as it is stasis.

Upset by the event, the two begin obvious shows of indifference. The husband, wishing for the status quo to return, a bit rattled by the vehemence of her reactions, cleans the kitchen until it reminds him of when it looked new, “before they had ever lived here” (Back, 61). When he takes out the trash he feels “ashamed that he had let his wife get him into a fight” (Back, 61) and thus, the reader understands, upset his controlled response to their relationship. When he considers their marriage he denies the faintest shadow of difference and recalls instead “the years they had spent together and how close they were and how well they knew each other” (Back, 61).

Coming back inside to a dark house, which symbolizes the advent of something unusual, the husband wants to recapture the security of familiarity. When he tells her through the bathroom door he will make it up to her, she asks what it is he will do. Surprised by her demand, he is perplexed by her tone of voice. “But from a sound in her voice, a level and definite note that was strange to him, he knew that he had to come up with the right answer” (Back, 62; emphasis added). Uncomfortable with her sudden “level and definite note,” which both upsets his control of their situation and promises something “strange,” the husband says that he would marry her if she were black. Ann's response—“we'll see”—continues the new note of indefiniteness in their relationship.

No longer in control, the husband waits anxiously in bed in the darkened bedroom. And, as Wolff did in “Coming Attractions,” he truncates the close of the story. The husband is literally “left in the dark.” He is obviously sexually aroused by the possibilities to come, but he is also frightened by his loss of control. The reader leaves him nervously awaiting some promise of the extraordinary. “His heart pounded the way it had on their first night together, the way it still did when he woke at a noise in the darkness and waited to hear it again—the sound of someone moving through the house, a stranger” (Back, 62; emphasis added).

A lighter permutation on a recurrent theme, “Say Yes” speaks to the necessity of the out of the ordinary to awaken the heart. Too self-assured, too intellectually ordered and controlling, the husband is comfortable only in the security of the familiar. He believes that he fully knows his wife and that his expected role in their relationship is empowered by this knowledge. Yet when Ann becomes unfamiliar and “strange,” his heart reacts as it did to the passion and suspense of their wedding night, when he did not know her. Wolff, who often writes of the yearning people have for the mystery and romance of the unknowable in the lives of others, here writes about the damage done when another's life is taken for granted, when what is strange or unique has long been submerged by the manageability of the familiar.

Making use of a term the writer D. H. Lawrence would have used in describing their unbalanced relationship, Ann has been “obliterated” by her husband's stronger, more dominant role in their marriage. But when Ann becomes unknown again and “a stranger,” and so introduces into the fearful husband's life the variable of mystery, she acquires power as the one in the relationship able to insert the startling pleasure of the unpredictable.


Beginning with a title paraphrased from the New Testament with the corollary themes of responsibility for others and the perils of wealth, Wolff's story is an almost religious parable on the duties of the able toward the less fortunate. Though not as directly expressive of a religious attitude as many Flannery O'Connor stories, or, more recently, “A Father's Story” by André Dubus, “The Poor Are Always with Us” reminds the reader that Wolff is a moralist.

Where materialism was castigated in “The Missing Person” and was an aspect of the dilemma in “Passengers,” in this story it describes the essential nature of the characters. The story begins with the line, “The trouble with owning a Porsche is that there's always something wrong with it” (Back, 65); the central character, Russell, is quickly drawn as a Silicon Valley whiz kid of the 70s with far more money than wisdom.

The conflict begins at the Porsche mechanic's garage, where the spirit of the times is Bruno, mechanic to the wealthy, whose patrons smoke marijuana in his office while he works on their expensive cars with the skill (and probably expense) of a neurosurgeon, “wearing starched white smocks and wielding tools that glittered like surgical instruments” (Back, 65). Here Russell manages to irritate Dave, another customer. Once a Silicon Valley computer genius, himself, Dave has run out of ideas while still a young man. Lonely, Russell interjects a self-righteous pronouncement into a conversation between Dave and his African-American companion Groves, castigating an acquaintance who has been fired for selling technology to the Japanese. Dave is immediately antagonistic toward Russell, whom he calls “a little weenie.” Though Groves attempts to mediate between the two, their exchanges continue until, in a moment of foolishness, Dave wagers his car against Russell's over the identity of a singer on the radio, and he loses.

The conflict initiated, Wolff elaborates on the character of Russell. Young and with more money than he needs, Russell is reminiscent of Glen in “Passengers,” who may have already lost himself in the quest for material self-gratification. Like Glen's, Russell's milieu is the essential “me” of those times. His apartment complex is peopled by childless couples whose dogs have been trained not to bark so they won't intrude on others' lives. Yet Russell has not gone as far as Glen. Attacked earlier as immature, with no right to an opinion, Russell tells Dave, “I know the difference between right and wrong” (Back, 67). And later Russell recalls a roommate who disparaged his “uptight” attitude because Russell refused to indulge in the sex and drugs so readily available. Russell keeps in mind a man named Teddy Wells, now 50, who has been divorced six times, spends most of his money on cocaine, and cruises for teenagers. Wolff writes that “Russell just wanted to keep his bearings” (Back, 72). Now Russell knows he will not yield to his desire to keep Dave's car, though he rationalizes his right to it. “But all of [his excuses to keep the car] sounded like lies to Russell—the kind of lies you tell yourself when you already know the truth” (Back, 70). He feels foolish about the events of the afternoon, and, though he dreams “of being a magnanimous person, openhearted and fair” (Back, 71), he knows that most people, like his roommate, would “think he was being fussy” about his values (Back, 71).

Prepared to do the right thing and in doing so to keep his “bearings” intact, Russell is thwarted by the neurotic anger of Dave, who sees Russell as some sort of scavenger feeding off the ideas people like him originated. For Dave, Russell represents a thankless progeny unaware of the gratitude they owe to the first Silicon Valley geniuses like himself. Afraid of Dave's belligerence, Russell reluctantly agrees to a second wager, this time the toss of a coin, and wins Dave's station wagon. Wolff adroitly finishes the scene with Dave stalking down the street on foot followed by his girlfriend, seemingly as unsettled as Dave, screaming after him at the top of her lungs. Luckless, a victim of his character, Dave is now the ultimate California outcast—a man on foot in the most mobile, car-oriented state in an automobile-crazed nation.

When Groves shows up at Russell's apartment to mediate a second time, Wolff provides more insight into Russell's character. Lonely, without a roommate or girlfriend, indeed, it seems without friends at all, Russell lives a monastic existence in an apartment with no pictures, stereo, or television. After Russell sees through Grove's elaborate excuse for Dave's behavior—the Vietnam veteran's syndrome in all its hackneyed aspects—Groves tells the truth about Dave's professional failure. Admitting his fear of Dave, Russell signs the car title over to Groves so he will have no further contact with Dave.

But Groves absconds with the car, now legally his, and Russell is stalked by Dave for a year, all the while preparing for a confrontation by practicing “again and again the proofs of his own decency” (Back, 79). Such a showdown never materializes, however, and Wolff collapses the final scene into a brief tableau in which Russell, parked in his Porsche, sees Dave attempt to cross a major street in heavy traffic. Though Russell's life seems to have improved—he is awaiting a date buying liquor for a party—Dave's has not. He is on foot and vulnerable. When he twice “tests his luck” (Back, 79) against the traffic, he has none and is forced back to the curb. For Dave there is no help—“no light nearby” (Back, 79)—and he is the only pedestrian. Russell expects to see Dave's anger flare up in defiance of the circumstances, but Dave is calm, “wait[ing] his chance. … He accepted this situation, saw nothing outrageous in it” (Back, 79).

For a moment Russell pities Dave, thinks he would do anything to help him. But just as quickly he denies the possibility of aiding him. “It didn't make sense trying to help Dave, because Dave couldn't be helped. Whatever Russell gave him he would lose. It just wasn't in the cards for him to have anything” (Back, 80).

The title of the story is a rendition of an injunction appearing at least twice in the Bible. When Christ rebukes Judas Iscariot for his attempt to prevent Mary from anointing His feet, Christ, recognizing Judas's condescending concern for the poor, says, “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always” (John 12:7-8). Here Christ echoes a passage from the Pentateuch, when God instructs, “But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him [the poor], and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. For the poor shall never cease out of the land. Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land” (Deuteronomy 15:8-11).

Often related piecemeal to the layperson as a statement of rather bleak fact, “the poor are always with us,” taken in context it is rather an injunction reminding the more fortunate that, according to Scripture, there are always among them those in need of help. Indeed, other than these two versions of the origin of Wolff's title, both testaments are replete with admonitions concerning the right-living person's attitude toward the unfortunate. Taken in context, the caution serves not as a reminder of pessimistic fact but instead a warning that there is always work at hand if one will only take notice.

The reader knows that Russell has a good heart and intentions. He lives a separate, monastic existence in an attempt to “keep his bearings” (Back, 72) in a time and place antagonistic to such. Yet simply not becoming one of those lost in the culture of materialism is not the same as actively helping one already engulfed. At the story's end the reader is aware of some slippage on Russell's part. To his Porsche he has added a girlfriend, drinking, and parties. Seeing Dave ensnared in the traffic, vulnerable, car-less, a potential victim of the more powerful all around him, Russell feels his heart go out to him. In an interpretation of the scriptures as statements of pessimistic fact, Russell denies any ability to help, to intercede. There is no risk in the abstraction of pity, of charity of the heart without action. But how much more difficult and dangerous would be an actual, active intervention into Dave's life that would force a confrontation with the frayed personality Russell fears? Indeed, earlier, when Russell might have interceded, he chose the unreliable Groves to shield him from Dave's aggression, thus exacerbating the conflict further.

Perhaps Russell will never become a degenerate, promiscuous Teddy Wells, but he has damaged himself already. He has refused to see himself as Dave, once a talented man, now unbalanced by his bad fortune. Russell sees in Dave's acceptance of his fate no need for intercession. So he tells himself that he is not his brother's keeper, that such unfortunates will always exist on the fringes of society.

But like Glen of “Passengers,” trapped in a basement closet and remembering his youthful freedom, Russell feels uneasy. He, too, recalls his childhood, and feeling “a little lost,” attempts to locate himself (Back, 80). But he is able only to pinpoint a geographic, not a moral, reference. “I'm on El Comino” (Back, 80), he says, and on his way to a party. He has, it seems, “lost his bearings.” Russell reminds the reader of the self-betrayal in “Smokers” and, even more so, in “Worldly Goods.” The story also contrasts with “The Missing Person,” in which Father Leo recovers his errant self by aiding Sandra.


In “Sister,” Wolff, the frequent moralist, lambastes the egoism of the 1970s and early 1980s “me generation.” He focuses on the loneliness and despair of a young woman, Marty, by exposing the predatory aspects of her generation's sexual practices. As a secondary issue, he speculates on the new role of women enmeshed in an aggressive approach to sexuality once practiced only by men. Wolff, who through his characters and thematic concerns often reminds readers of their responsibilities toward one another, in this story concentrates on the failure of Marty to succeed; her story becomes the story of Robert in “Face to Face” rather than Virginia, who salvages her life.

At the beginning of the story, Marty is an anxious, excited player of the sexual game. When from her kitchen window she notices two men in the park, she quickly gets ready for playacting, allured by one man in particular, especially the “deep brown color of his skin” (Back, 83). She is very conscious of her dress but also worried that she might appear too eager. When “[f]or a few moments she [loses] her image in the mirror” (Back, 83), she brings to mind Russell in “The Poor Are Always with Us,” “lost” to himself on the roadside amidst the material trappings of the world, as well as Jerry in “The Missing Person.” Wolff intensifies this undercurrent of insecurity when, going out, Marty is frightened by a neighbor's dog, which she believes is “trying to get at her” (Back, 84) from behind a door. Marty continues on to the park to engage the two men, her inner doubt and vulnerability made apparent by Wolff.

To underscore Marty's self-doubt, Wolff has her take comfort in imagining her brother's hunting trip with his buddies. Antithetical to the cruel, disastrous hunt in “Hunters in the Snow,” the one Marty imagines is romantically bucolic, similar to scenes from nineteenth-century novels involving characters like Levin in Anna Karenina and the narrator in Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album. She envisions victorious hunters triumphantly drunk and completely at ease in their situation. Her association to the imagined scene is one of relation—she defines herself as her brother's sister and, as such, feels vulnerable and uncertain as she descends the hill to engage the men in pursuit of sex. Though her generation has attempted to equalize the struggle, she still feels herself the potential quarry, the victim to the victorious.

When she enters the park, Marty notices some boys playing football. Wanting nothing more than to turn and run back home so as not to engage in the playacting that will be necessary between herself and the tanned man, she watches the young boys, already mimicking adults by “hunching up their shoulders and shaking their wrists as they jogged back to the huddle, grunting when they came off the line as if their bodies were big and weighty” (Back, 84). And though their antics make her laugh, the reader understands her tone as uneasy.

The game, the hunt, the sexual sparring begins with a jolt when Marty recognizes Jack, the tanned man's friend, as someone who recently abandoned her in a local singles' bar. His vague recollection of her contributes to the undercurrent of tension, though Marty is too attracted to the tanned man to flee. While he looks Marty over blatantly, she notices his “chest … covered with little curls of glistening golden hair” (Back, 85). She realizes the two have been talking about sex when she arrived and that it is “still in the air somehow, with the ripe smell of wet leaves and the rain-soaked earth. She took a deep breath” (Back, 85-86).

When the three talk, the conversation is superficial and sexually charged. The two men talk about bikini-clad women and desire, while Marty makes light of their allusions with banal chatter. The meaningless conversation becomes more complicated in its disingenuousness when Jack, still vaguely suspicious of Marty, lies about his name. Then they all exchange false names to protect themselves. Like actors in roles, they are now free to resume the sexual game without fear of personal involvement.

Willing to lie, to playact, to manipulate, to take part in the impersonal singles' bar scene, Marty takes little notice of the tanned man's wedding ring. But when the hood of his jacket falls, revealing a balding head carefully combed over from one side, Marty does notice this. The reader is reminded of both the staginess of the encounter and the vulnerability of everyone involved in it. Where now the man is ashamed of his bald spot, earlier Marty was afraid her feet would look too big in her new tennis shoes. Artificially glib in their sexual games, they nonetheless remain human and fearful of ridicule, of victimization, of the many small details that can betray vulnerability.

But their conversation fails to acknowledge anything remotely personal and remains silly sexual banter. Only when Marty professes her belief in reincarnation—reflecting a Western trend of adopting Eastern religious myths—does the reader see her real despair. “She wasn't even sure she actually believed in it. … She had serious doubts, sometimes. But at other times she thought it had to be true; this couldn't be everything” (Back, 89). But she could not possibly admit to such a deep concern in the deceitful atmosphere of this conversation; it would leave her too exposed.

Marty's scheme to double-date is thwarted by an errant frisbee that separates her from the two men and places her in the path of a skidding automobile. For a few terrifying moments, Marty sees the careening car in slow motion; unable to move, she believes she is about to be run over. At the last second the car's tires catch on dry pavement and she is saved. But she has dramatically displayed her vulnerability, which is supposed to be carefully cloaked in idle chat and casual sex. “Marty turned toward the park and saw the two men looking at her. They were looking at her as if they had seen her naked, and that was how she felt—naked. She had nearly been killed and now she was an embarrassment, like someone in need” (Back, 90). Marty is no longer welcomed in the park, in the superficial dialogue, the theatrical play-acting because she has appeared “naked,” vulnerable and human.

Such sympathy and understanding are not available in her world, so Marty walks back to her apartment feeling ghostly, insubstantial. The earth, earlier associated with sex, now “smells of decay” (Back, 91). Weakened, unable to pass the snarling dog in her apartment building, she sits on its steps. She realizes she has no one to comfort her, to listen to her fears, to tell her “everything is going to be all right” (Back, 91). Her epiphany is as chilling as Eveline's in James Joyce's story by that name. There the protagonist actually flees her chance at a fresh start in life and sets “her white face to him [her lover], passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”6 Marty believes there will never be anyone for her, and so she never again has to put herself at risk as she did with the men in the park. Very much like Robert in “Face to Face,” who looks at Virginia “with sudden panic … deciding at that moment always to be alone” (Garden, 72), Marty rejects everyone. And like a Hemingway character coming to the realization that a reduced and simple state of existence, no matter how isolating, is best because it exposes one to the least harm, she feels “empty and clean, and did not want to lose the feeling” (Back, 91).

At the close of the story, Marty imagines her brother and his buddies, who seem to her, in her romantic way, in charge of their lives, full of masculine camaraderie, while their dogs, like Marty, are left in the cold car, “whimpering to themselves” and “watching the bright door the men have closed behind them” (Back, 92).

One of Wolff's most pessimistic views of modern culture, “Sister” recalls “Hunters in the Snow” and Robert's failure in “Face to Face” to reconnect to life. Indeed, Marty differs greatly from Virginia, the protagonist in that story, who is able to salvage a life that might well have gone the way of Robert's. “Sister” contrasts with “Coming Attractions” and “The Missing Person,” where central characters are saved from selfish despair through their acceptance of duty to others. And the lies told by Marty and the two men to protect themselves remind the reader of the lies told in “Smokers,” “The Liar,” and “Coming Attractions,” where they serve the purpose of creating an image thought to be more robust and less vulnerable to the world's onslaughts. Marty comes to embody those who resign themselves to defeat and are quite beyond help: Robert in “Face to Face,” Jerry in “The Missing Person,” and Dave in “The Poor Are Always with Us.” Previously, Wolff has made this type of character peripheral, but in “Sister” it is central.

Wolff tells us that Marty feels “empty and clean” (Back, 91) and that, at the story's conclusion, she wants to retain this feeling. But where this sort of stoicism of defeat might make sense for a character in Hemingway, a writer whose moral universe dictates that knowledge of limitations is power, for a character in Wolff it is an indictment. Marty has yielded to exclusion from the world. She takes the course of least resistance, as does Robert in “Face to Face” when he decides to retreat into himself and deny the struggle life often demands. By acquiescing to her perceived role as a sister, a woman, even a bitch dog left alone in a truck (by Marty's brother and his friends on their hunting trip)—all controlled by the whims of men—Marty consigns herself to victimhood. Clearly, Wolff is trouncing the societal mores of the times (the 1970s and early 1980s, before the advent of AIDS slowed the sexual revolution). He is also investigating the difficulties women have in adjusting to sexual games whose rules have, for centuries, been imposed by men. But the single most important theme is one seen throughout Wolff's fiction: the difficulty of making genuine, intimate contact with others when to do so is to expose oneself to the possibility of ridicule. It is an indictment of Marty's times that sex is less intimate than straightforward conversation, that actually being naked is less risky than uncovering one's vulnerable humanity.


“Soldier's Joy” is Tobias Wolff's fourth treatment of soldiers and his second short story about the reintroduction of the Vietnam War veteran into American society. It also provides the title of the collection in the phrase “back in the world,” the soldier's shorthand for civilian life. The phrase resides at the core of this story. Hooper, a veteran of Vietnam now serving stateside, reveals his cast of mind in a monologue of self-revelation that precipitates the murder of the soldier Porchoff: “Back in the world we were going to have it made. But ever since then it's been nothing but confusion” (Back, 116).

The dilemma of the Vietnam veteran's reintroduction to society has become a contemporary cultural focal point worthy of such movies as The Deerhunter and Born on the Fourth of July, numerous novels such as Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green, and short-story collections such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. The theme occupied Wolff in an earlier story, “Wingfield.” But in that story the narrator is finally able to confront his confusion and to experience a cathartic moment through the story of the soldier Wingfield's survival of Vietnam, representing a survival of innocence that frees the narrator's vestigial innocence to emerge. At that epiphanic moment, the narrator of “Wingfield” becomes “a soldier on leave … a boy who knows nothing at all … a carefree and go-to-hell fellow” (Garden, 122).

But in this story the confusion wins out. Innocence, represented by the soldier Porchoff, is murdered. To Hooper, “contact” does not mean the touch of flesh or spirit; it means the destruction of the enemy, the mindless and stultifying task of sanctioned killing, which bonds fellow soldiers. Hooper tells Porchoff that there is “nothing wrong with you that a little search-and-destroy wouldn't cure” (Back, 116). Hooper believes love and faith are formed in the crucible of battle. “Everything was clear” (Back, 116). The soldiers in Vietnam “were not separate men anymore, but part of each other” (Back, 117). Hooper tries to comfort the startled Porchoff by assuring him that another war is imminent. “I can feel it coming. … All you need is a little contact. The rest of us too. Get us out of this rut” (Back, 117).

This “rut” is evident at the start of “Soldier's Joy.” Hooper is listless, the peacetime military routine enervating in its monotony. He oversees men digging the base commander's pool by hand—obviously just for something to do. Since he has already put in 20 years and has just been broken down from corporal to PFC, his top sergeant tries to convince him to retire. Being “back in the world” is not at all what had been expected by someone who has depended on the military for discipline, for routine, for a direction in life.

Though Hooper has a wife and has a son, the reader learns this obliquely, for they matter little to the soldier. In fact, Hooper seems to have failed as husband and father since his return—another manifestation of the world's confusion. His sex life is as much a routine as his base duty. His lover, Mickey, is utterly and frankly faithless to her husband, a supply sergeant, to Hooper, and to Briggs, another soldier on the base. Even Mickey's bedroom is military—lamps made from brass shells, sheets of parachute silk; Hooper observes that “everything around him” was “stolen” (Back, 97). But despite this and the fact that he is a poor sexual performer, Hooper continues his affair with the promiscuous Mickey, because it, too, is a routine. “It was just something he did, again and again” (Back, 97).

The action of the story begins when Hooper is paired with Captain King on night-guard duty at the base. King himself is much like Hooper, who realizes that the old captain “regarded him … as a comrade in dereliction, a disaster like himself with no room left for judgment against anyone” (Back, 99). But Hooper is critical of the captain's lackadaisical attitude. He obviously does not consider himself as far gone as the hopeless King. For Hooper, a “lifer” is still a “grunt,” not an officer, and so he believes that he is still connected to the camaraderie of his fellow enlisted men.

In his own element, with common soldiers around, Hooper is able to take charge. He delivers two soldiers to guard the communications center—Porchoff, derided as “Porkchop” by the others, and Trac, who has been to Vietnam and whose face Hooper finds oddly familiar, as if in Vietnam Trac had been a child “running alongside Hooper's APC with a bunch of other kids all begging money” (Back, 100). This confusion, one of many in Hooper's life, is a striking one. For in it he blurs young soldiers and childish innocence. The two are confused, as they were in Vietnam, where young, inexperienced boys took on duties that destroyed their innocence. This theme is also expressed in Tim O'Brien's short story “Spin,” in which a soldier named Azar straps a claymore mine to a puppy and detonates it. When his comrades look amazed, Azar shrugs his shoulders and says, “What's everybody so upset about? I mean, Christ, I'm just a boy.7 This shattered innocence, which the narrator in “Wingfield” is able to regain, has been completely lost by Hooper; furthermore, he thinks the loss worthwhile if it brings him faith and love through esprit de corps and so centers his life in battlefield activity.

For Hooper, the army supplies an additional incentive. He believes that he behaves better when he is being watched by others and so abrogates his ultimate responsibility for his actions—war is made by politicians; soldiers perform their duties without criticism, mindless as to consequences. Theirs is a brotherhood of honor and duty to others; there is a blood bond that directs enlisted soldiers' lives through the adrenalin rush of combat. Here the grunts follow the orders of officers and make deadly contact with the enemy. And here in battle all is directed toward killing and surviving in a very simple, neat package of duty without responsibility.

Despite this attitude, on this particular night Hooper deserts his duty and goes temporarily AWOL to seek out the licentious Mickey. Hooper seeks “contact” even though it is sexual, something he isn't good at, and with a woman whose favors are liberally dispensed without much pleasure on her part. Still, Hooper has abandoned his post, the base—the companionship of other soldiers—and is seeking something that he can find only “back in the world.” On the drive into town he sinks into memory, but Wolff withholds his thoughts from the reader. Are they of civilian life? Of his wife and son? Of Vietnam? At Mickey's, Hooper spies a car belonging to yet another lover he cannot place. He skulks around her house without a definite purpose until one of Mickey's neighbors confronts him. Like some peculiar conscience, the woman berates Hooper for sniffing after a whore. She carries an army pistol and looks menacing and strange, a harridan in a prom dress. “She wore glasses with black frames, and she had on a white dress of the kind girls called ‘formals’ when Hooper was in high school—tight around the waist and flaring stiffly at the hip, breasts held in hard-looking cups. Shadows darkened the hollows of her cheeks. Under the flounces of the dress her feet were big and bare” (Back, 108). This odd apparition is a blurring of high school innocence armed with a deadly weapon. Acting as his conscience, forcing Hooper to obey, the woman practically drives him back from “the world” to his duty on the base. When the woman's husband appears and learns that Hooper is a soldier, he becomes curiously formal and gallant, as if Hooper were a soldier from another era. He, too, thinks Hooper should be at his post. “The man gave a slight bow with his head. ‘To base with you then. Good night sir’” (Back, 109).

The reader feels that whatever vague possibilities Hooper had sought off-base have been completely closed to him. The odd civilian couple, representing his blurred conscience and the romantic attitude only civilians can have toward military life, has forced Hooper back into the narrow confines of his soldier's life. The neighbor expects Hooper to maintain his soldierly conduct, if for no other reason than to keep up the illusion of the military her husband believes in. “There've been disappointments enough in his life already and God only knows what's next. He's got to have something left. … Why are you still here? Get back to your post” (Back, 110).

Confused and thwarted by the civilian world, Hooper is secure and assertive once he is back on the base and “out of the world.” Waving at soldiers in a passing jeep, “Hooper felt a surge of friendliness toward them. He followed their lights in his mirror until they vanished behind him” (Back, 111). Walking in the rain, “Sweet, almost unbreathable smells rose from the earth” (Back, 111). Though the peacetime army is lacking in many ways, it is less daunting to Hooper than the outside world. His attitude expresses a posture as old as soldiering. The young soldier Nikolai Rostov expresses exactly the same sentiments in Tolstoy's War and Peace: “[A]fter taking leave of his liberty and letting himself be nailed down within one narrow inflexible framework, Rostov experienced the same sense of peace, of moral support, and the same sense of being at home. … Here was none of that turmoil of the world at large in which he found himself out of his element and made mistakes in exercising his free will.”8

Back on the base events cascade quickly and dramatically toward the story's conclusion. At the communications center, Porchoff has supposedly gone berserk and threatened to shoot Trac. Hooper considers waking Captain King, but here, among the enlisted men, the threat of violent contact quickens his pulse and clearly directs his attention. The uncertainty of the world gives way to the certainty of Hooper's duty.

Inside the fenced compound, Hooper dismisses Trac's offer of assistance. Alone with the armed and nervous Porchoff, Hooper, who minutes before was himself confused and unhappy, is now in his element and cannot understand why Porchoff is upset. Not sure of what could be the matter, Hooper guesses homosexuality and drugs. As a lifer to a recruit, Hooper condescends to Porchoff in a fatherly way. But Porchoff's crisis is one of identity in the faceless sameness of military life. His is an articulate rebellion that Hooper, safe from the confusion of the outside world, refuses to acknowledge. Porchoff says he has no friends. “It's like I'm not even there. So what am I supposed to act like?” (Back, 115).

Hooper correctly identifies Porchoff's problem as part of the rut they are all in and offers him hope of impending change. When Porchoff pursues this possibility by asking Hooper to tell him about the best time in his life, Hooper speaks of the freedom of Vietnam. Up until this part of the story, the reader has sided with Hooper, the central character through whose perceptions the narrative has progressed. But in a sudden and chilling dislocation, as Hooper reveals the startling damage Vietnam has done to him, the reader identifies with the alarmed and dismayed Porchoff. The anxious recruit is asking the correct questions; Hooper is supplying insane answers.

In Vietnam, friendship was replaced by camaraderie; human contact corrupted into battle skirmishes; introspection annihilated by concerns for simple survival. When Porchoff refuses to hand over his rifle and says Hooper is indeed the crazy one, the reader agrees. Hooper hopes for combat, where life is reduced to the simplest of terms, killing and surviving. Hooper offers himself to Porchoff as an example of what, if he is lucky, he will have the chance to become. After reacting in defense against the insanity that confronts him, Porchoff is killed by Trac in the sort of contact the two Vietnam veterans best understand, and it immediately refreshes them. Trac mumbles in Vietnamese; Hooper sees him as the child/soldier that he must protect. Their hands lock in an understanding of the combat situation. The moment is one of bloody bonding, and the dead Porchoff is forgotten as Hooper consoles the frightened grunt. Immediately the battle-hardened Hooper begins to clear away any incriminating evidence; he takes charge of the situation. He calls Trac “son” and says they must get their stories straight for Captain King. Such, according to Wolff's dark story, is the stuff of “soldier's joy”—the contact of battle has been made, the enemy destroyed, and camaraderie established. All this is comprehensible to Hooper, direct and simple, without the confusion of civilian life. He is far from the world now and an inhabitant of the simplicity of the battlefield.

Wolff has thus written a story almost exactly antipodal to “Wingfield.” In that story, the Vietnam veteran's life has been shattered by the ambush that killed many of his fellow soldiers. He has refused to name the dead, to acknowledge his past. Instead, he has become prematurely old, his youthful innocence destroyed. But when he learns of Wingfield's miraculous survival, hope is rekindled. At the story's end, the suffering veteran regains his innocence in a moment of epiphany.

Hooper, too, was psychologically maimed in Vietnam. Love has been usurped by camaraderie; human contact has been perverted into search-and-destroy missions. Porchoff, the story's emblem of hopeful normality, of innocence, in a way, is murdered by Trac, who thinks he is saving Hooper's life. And battlefield comradeship, their only form of sympathy, provides them with their bond. The corrupting influence of practiced brutality has deformed the human being in Hooper, who must now depend on such contact to supply meaning in his life. Love, hope, innocence, compassion—all have been exchanged for his simplified life in the military; the confusion of “the world” beyond the gates of the army post has made impossible Hooper's reentry into an existence infinitely more fruitful in its human possibilities. Like Marty in “Sister,” Robert in “Face to Face,” and Jerry in “The Missing Person,” Hooper cannot mend his life.


Unlike any story in either of Wolff's collections, “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” uses a dual-character point of view that divides the narrative almost equally between Mark and Krystal, a young married couple. While this is a point-of-view technique of some long-standing use—as in “Unlighted Lamps” by Sherwood Anderson (The Triumph of the Egg) and “The Shadow in the Rose Garden” by D. H. Lawrence (The Complete Stories)—for Wolff it is unusual. He used it most extensively in his 1975 novel, Ugly Rumours.

A simple event gets the story going: the breakdown of the couple's car in the desert. Often fiction writers introduce such fate-altering opportunities only to have them rejected by characters disabled by their past, incapable of grasping at even the most seductive of futures (Katherine Mansfield's “The Ladies' Maid” and James Joyce's “Eveline” come to mind). But Wolff, making use of this device in a more modern, cinematic fashion, effectively “splits the screen,” showing Mark defeated by his choice and Krystal triumphant. As a result of the breakdown, both are exposed to the enticing and erotic lives of others, and both temporarily abandon their family and immerse themselves in the pleasure of self-gratification, turning their backs on responsibility and duty. Mark ends up rejecting this experience completely, with the result that he is plunged back into a life he finds bitterly frustrating. Krystal, however, repudiates only part of the experience and is changed for the better because of it.

Inhabiting Mark's consciousness first, the reader quickly learns of his boyish insecurity and ill-fashioned plans. Krystal, disheveled and huge with child, is unattractive to him. They are headed toward California, the perennial land of milk and honey, with fruit always hanging just outside the window for plucking, where Mark has vague plans of a career in entertainment. His parents, back in Phoenix, have offered him sound advice on remaining there and selling real estate, but to the young man just out of the army with aspirations of stardom, their plans smack of complacency. Mark “always looks discouraged” (Back, 123) in the photographs Krystal constantly snaps, and his only talent is to cruelly mimic his companions and parents. When Hans, Krystal's child with her first husband, awakens, Mark tries to soothe him with a phrase that is repeated later and is emblematic of Mark's own insecurity: “‘Pretty soon,’ he said, ‘pretty soon, Hansy,’ not meaning anything in particular but wanting to sound confident, upbeat” (Back, 125).

The landscape itself becomes a symbolic backdrop for the actions of the characters. Barren, sterile, unforgiving, the terrain is like that of the desert world in the short story “The Guest” by Albert Camus—“plateaux burned to a cinder month after month, the earth shrivelled up little by little, literally scorched, every stone bursting into dust under one's foot.”9 And perhaps this resemblance is no coincidence, given that this story, like “The Guest,” exhibits the existential qualities of alienation and lack of commitment. Both Mark and Krystal are “doomed to freedom”; at the story's end, they will have to exercise their free will to reestablish their lives. For Mark, the topography is threatening, seeming to discourage his ethereal plans for the future: “The road went north … leading them toward a solitary mountain far away that looked to Mark like a colossal sinking ship” (Back, 127).

Just prior to their car trouble, Mark and Krystal pull into a service station. They park out front, where, rooted to an ancient plank bench, is a chorus of old men looking as if “they had been there forever” (Back, 127). Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the old men reflect the predominant values of this desert. Xenophobic, they are critical of outsiders, seeing them as targets for their mumbled derision. Webb, the choragus, leers at Krystal's heavy body as the others utter lewd remarks and chuckle. Mark sees her now as these old men see her—made grotesque by her pregnancy, an obvious target for sexual slurs by the withered, impotent old men. In the presence of these men, Mark begins to repudiate his current life, which is already undermined by his insecurities. He is ashamed of his wife, of Hansy's unusual name, of the battered car that looks ridiculous beside the men's practical pickups. Krystal's reaction is to laugh at the men and then startle them by suddenly taking a snapshot.

When the car fails to start, the literal breakdown occurs and the story begins. With Mark ready to “lower his head to the wheel and give way to tears” (Back, 130), the reader is introduced to the hard-edged Hope, Webb's lover, who runs the service station and offers her assistance. The old men, like relics of ancient gods, remain unmoved and uncaring, forcing Mark into the decision of walking to the highway to catch a ride to retrieve a car part.

Alone with Hope, Krystal feels “heavy and vaguely ashamed.” She watches Hope with “innocent, almost animal curiosity” (Back, 133). Hope refers to Mark as a “boy,” and when Krystal explains their California plans to her, she smiles at their naivete. But Krystal thinks the smile is too tight and appears “painful somehow” (Back, 134). Outside the old men continue their ceaseless muttering. Webb enters brusquely for a beer and abruptly takes Hans away from the women.

Miserable in the heat, foolishly afraid of snakes at midday, Mark “wanted to be cheerful” (Back, 136) but is dismayed by the disruption of his plans. His feelings of boyish defeatism run rampant in the desert: “Whatever [he and Krystal] did, it always turned out like this. Nothing ever worked” (Back, 136). He tries to console himself by imagining his success on stage at the Sands in Las Vegas, where he plans to invite his parents only for the purpose of humiliating them for their failure to help him.

What Krystal meanwhile has begun to learn from Hope is to adopt her attitude toward men. Rough and masculine herself, Hope defines manliness as a commitment to stand up for a woman; indeed, to kill for one if need be. Hope tells of how Webb beat her husband and followed her around town with his wife in the car. As Krystal listens to the story, she is soothed by the “dim, peaceful, cool” bedroom that has become “pleasant … dark.” As Hope works on a motorcycle in the middle of the floor, Krystal thinks Hope's defiance is “like Beethoven shaking his fist at the heavens” (Back, 140). But when she learns that Hope abandoned her two sons, she says that she could never do such a thing. Hope says she is sure Krystal could. Children “crowd you out of your own life,” she says. And she adds: “They'll do all right. … They're both boys” (Back, 140). Lulled by the dark coolness, Krystal drifts off to sleep. And though she remembers that Hans is outside with the old men, she cannot fight off her drowsiness.

Mark, like Christ tempted in the wilderness, is about to be offered worldly delights and an unbelievably lucky break that could make his career. All he must do is abandon his family. In the pattern prefigured in the story by Hope and Webb, and which Krystal has begun to slip into by neglecting Hans, Mark's test appears, appropriately enough, in the form of a speeding hearse pulling over to give him a lift. Inside is a zany and lusty trio of Hollywood moviepeople: Barney sports a Mohawk haircut; Nance is sexually alluring, with full lips and a gold nose-ring; and the unnamed driver mumbles nonsense rhymes.

Initially uncomfortable in such an alien atmosphere, Mark quickly adapts. His wit is appreciated. Cool inside the automobile, like Krystal in Hope's bedroom, Mark vaguely recalls the desert heat and feels “glad to be right where he was” (Back, 143). He forgets about Krystal and Hans and becomes enraptured with the exotic lives of the movie-people, which are so unlike his unhappy domesticity. They call him Marco instead of Mark; they offer him a trip to the mountains to a remote movie location, a place they refer to as “partyville.” Barney guarantees Mark a job. Redheaded, Barney becomes the tempter in the wilderness and recalls the less devilish, but still provocative, Riley, who reveals an alternative life to Brooke in “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke.” As in that story, red hair evokes that of the agent of lust in Thomas Mann's “Death in Venice” and, perhaps, the hair of Judas Iscariot, who betrays Christ. “What have you got to lose?” Barney asks Mark. And tells him, “Don't disappoint me” (Back, 146).

Feeling “rushed” and “a little wild” (Back, 146), Mark considers how to work Krystal into the plan without losing the current momentum, but can't. The foolish boy Hope knows him to be surfaces as Mark imagines his future success and thinks Krystal better off without him. Considering abandoning his family, Mark tells himself: “He could leave them. … It was a terrible thing. But it happened and people survived, as they survived worse things” (Back, 148). His fantasy grows so elaborate that he begins to dismay over how quickly Krystal will recover from his absence. Echoing Hope, Mark concludes that marriage forces one “to give up one thing after another. … You had to give up your life” (Back, 149). Deciding on his course of action, Mark agrees to Barney's proposal to invest in his own aspirations, having used a boy's egotistical logic.

Simultaneously, back at the service station, Krystal begins to regret her lost life in Germany and becomes aware of the unbearable desolation of her surroundings, in which “she count[ed] for no more than a rock or a spiny tree” (Back, 150). She realizes that Mark will never be important in her life.

Past the town of Blythe and the auto parts store, Mark becomes “uncomfortable” with the hurtling hearse and the mumbling, Charon-like driver, who “changed lanes without any purpose” (Back, 151). Growing frantic over the terrific speed at which they are traveling, Mark peers over the seat and is stunned by what he sees. Though Wolff leaves the details to the reader's imagination, we deduce some kinky ménàge a trois. “He had never seen anything like that before. It took the wind out of him” (Back, 152). As the car presses forward at high speed and animal noises are emitted from the front, Mark demands to be let out. Barney reminds him of his decision to go with them, while Nance invites him up front to partake of their pleasures. Desperate, Mark raps on the driver's head until she slams to a stop in the middle of the road. “I want out” (Back, 152), Mark tells them.

Almost immediately, Marco becomes Mark again. No longer an adventurer, an explorer of the exotic, he lands back in his unbearable rut. Once at the parts store, he discovers that what he needs costs more than he can pay; the situation thus echoes his earlier lament that everything conspires against him. Outside in the heat again, Mark “could smell himself. He remembered the coolness of the hearse and thought, I blew it” (Back, 154). Further frustrated by being unable to contact an army buddy on the phone, Mark considers dialing people in Los Angeles until he gets “a human being on the other end. There had to be someone sympathetic out there” (Back, 155). Instead he phones his parents in Phoenix, and, considering this a defeat, imagines that he will mimic a police officer and terrify them with cruel details of their son's death in a traffic collision. But when his father answers, Mark's plan vanishes as he declares himself the caller.

For Mark, the desert breakdown has been a bitter defeat. Full of elaborate, boyish fantasies of abandoning his responsibilities for the freedom of an entirely egotistical existence and emerging as the exotic Marco, he is instead forced to depend on his parents and to acknowledge his familial duties. Is it probable that Krystal was accurate earlier, when she understood that Mark would never be valuable in her life. The reader can see him returning to Phoenix to sell real estate, pessimistic and bitter, thinking that he once had a chance to radically alter his future but discovered himself to be too conventional to grasp the opportunity.

But where Mark is defeated, Krystal triumphs. She realizes the dangerous selfishness of her situation when she turns on the light in Webb and Hope's bedroom. What had been cool, dark, and narcotizing, allowing her to forget Hans, suddenly becomes vulgar, like a bedroom in a bordello. Exposed to the light, the “love nest” is all red, with “red tassels” dangling from the lampshades and “pillows … shaped like hearts and covered in a satiny material that looked wet under the light … they had the appearance of real organs.” Thinking “It was horrible, horrible” (Back, 156), Krystal echoes a chilling line from another story about the dreadful machinations of the human heart, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which the protagonist, Kurtz, repeats “The horror! The horror!”10

Where Mark is debilitated by his rejection of a new life, Krystal is energized. She rushes outside to retrieve Hans, finding him happily covered in dirt. When she attempts to gather him up, he calls her a bitch, something he has learned from the old men and at which they laugh. Taking this rejection as a physical blow, Krystal slaps the child and, picking up a plank, attacks the old men, agents of vulgarity and the status quo of this desert service station. In a Teutonic rage befitting a character from Wagner, ranting in German, she forces their surrender of the bench. Then, finding Webb asleep in her car, she smacks him cruelly across the soles of his feet. Watching them cower, she almost smiles.

Where Mark is embittered and uncertain about his denial of a more exotic life, Krystal is charged with the acceptance of her duties to Hans and her unborn child. Though rejecting Hope's selfish advice about abandoning her children, Krystal does draw from her strength of will. Krystal has shaken off the numbing qualities of self-absorption. And it seems doubtful that this new and stronger Krystal will be satisfied with the pessimistic, frustrated Mark. They have traveled in antipodal directions from the single event of the desert breakdown. Mark remains a child; Krystal has become an adult.

Both Krystal and Mark have been briefly exposed to the alluring, mysterious possibilities of the lives of others, a theme Wolff explores often, in such stories as “Next Door,” “Say Yes,” and “The Missing Person.” Yet “Desert Breakdown” more closely resembles “Face to Face,” another story about a couple in which the woman triumphs and the man is defeated.


Unlike any other short story by Tobias Wolff, “Our Story Begins” is about writers and the nature of short fiction. In truth, this single story can serve to illuminate in many ways all of Wolff's other stories. If “back in the world” is the phrase that best describes the general, overarching theme of the collection, “Our Story Begins” offers the reader Wolff's thoughts on the subject matter and intent of realistic short fiction.

“Our Story Begins” seems an illustration of Nadine Gordimer's comparison of short fiction to the “flash of fireflies,” in which moments of revelation present brief insights into characters' lives.11 But art whose subject matter is the composition of art is often a chancy proposition. Stories, novels, documentaries, movies often dwell on the life of the artist, which provides more engaging material for drama, especially if that life was tumultuous, with marital discord, wartime backdrops, or the like. Such events often enliven an otherwise tedious topic. Since the inception of art is cerebral and the execution most undramatic, works about the modes of perception and means of composition are inherently unexciting. Such intellectual pursuits are often left to scholarly articles with their attendant audiences. Neither is Wolff a postmodern writer engaged in self-referential writing that describes or questions the labyrinthine roles of writers, characters, and readers.

Eschewing the postmodern and wanting to enliven a potentially tedious subject for the majority of readers, Wolff conceals the fact that the central character in “Our Story Begins” is a writer until its end. The story itself is traditionally framed. Charlie, a busboy in a meaningless job where he is invisible to other employees, walks down a fogenshrouded street in San Francisco to a café. From the mist emerges a “three-legged dog” (Back, 163), which unsettles the young man. Near the conclusion of the story a Chinese woman “appeared beside him,” holding a lobster “waving its pincers” (Back, 177). Both images emerge and vanish like the “flash of fireflies” of which Gordimer speaks. They are strange occurrences that present Charlie, the writer, with potential material. What is the story of this dog? This Chinese woman with a lobster? Like the nature of the short story, they appear and disappear, discrete moments of mystery, lyrical moments of potential revelation.

The central moment of illumination is the story within the story Charlie overhears in the coffeehouse, which he frequents because of its romantic association with Beats Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neil Cassady. Charlie is aware that he somehow taints this shrine to that rebellious pantheon with the fish odor he has brought from work. The “sweet smell of coffee” (Back, 163) is disrupted by his reek and reminds him of his failure as a writer and nonentity as a person (note the similarity to Mark's awareness of his odor in “Desert Breakdown, 1968” [Back, 154]). In combination with the overheard story, the fish smell serves to debunk Charlie's romantic view of the writer's life and to force him, at the end, to realize and accept its actual nature.

The story overheard concerns the nature of love (and reminds the reader of the wide range of such presentations, from Raymond Carver's “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” to Plato's Symposium). As it is told, Charlie, the protagonist, disappears, as would an author who allows his characters to occupy center stage. Like the narrator as agent in framed stories, Charlie intrudes only to offer a moment of transition or, in this case, to counterpoint the discussion by describing the reaction of some old Italian men to the opera playing on the café record player. Quickly, he slips back into eavesdropping and voyeurism—character traits of writers and readers alike.

The story is about a Filipino named Miguel and his unrequited love for a woman named Senga. Seated at the table are two men and a woman. One of the men, Truman, is married to the woman, Audrey. The reader and Charlie realize that the man telling the story, George, is Audrey's lover. Through his comments we learn that Truman is indifferent to his wife and hostile to women. Audrey, meanwhile, finds Truman boorish and predictable. The tale-teller, George, is debonair and sophisticated. Truman takes the side of the beleaguered Senga, and the two lovers champion Miguel's adventurous quest. At the conclusion of the story, Audrey suggests that George tell Truman about their affair; Truman, upset and refusing to hear any more, leaves the coffeehouse, with George and Audrey in tow.

The two love stories are themselves the stuff of the opera playing in the background—sentimentality, melodrama, beauty, love, obsession, egotism, betrayal. But unlike opera, a prolonged narrative that reaches a conclusion (usually bloody and despairing), the stories of Miguel and Senga and of Truman, Audrey, and George are unfinished. For us, the readers, and for Charlie, the writer, they are the lyrical “flash of fireflies” that, like the deformed dog and the woman with a lobster, appear only to disappear; they have materialized, for a moment, from the fog of surrounding events. They have stood out clearly, discretely from the world.

Charlie leaves the coffeehouse and finds the street “foggy and colder than before” (Back, 175). Now the reader discovers that he is a forlorn, struggling writer without friends, trapped in a demeaning job. His novel has been returned from one editor with this comment: “Are you kidding?” (Back, 176). He had almost decided to give up his work, but somehow the experience of the last half-hour has changed his mind. He recognizes the sadness around him, but he enjoys his part in it, his complicity as a writer, a chronicler of fragmentary insights into the lives of others. Charlie pictures himself on watch in the prow of a boat with a lantern in hand: “All distraction gone. Too watchful to be afraid. Tongue wetting the lips and eyes wide open ready to call out in this shifting fog where at any moment anything might be revealed” (Back, 177).

It is interesting to note that Wolff makes Charlie a novelist and yet the nature and duration of Charlie's revelations, illustrating Gordimer's point, are those lyrical moments of mystery inherent in short fiction. Perhaps that is why Charlie's novel is rejected. He may be, by disposition, a short-story writer, a miniaturist like Wolff himself. If this is so, then maybe the end of the story can serve him as an epiphany (another device of short fiction) signaling his need for a change in direction. After all, this narrative about Charlie takes the form of a short story; the overheard story of Miguel and Senga is the material of a short story. Finally, this story about the nature of short fiction and its inherent material requirements can be applied to Wolff's best fiction as well—almost all of which is short (excluding the novella, The Barracks Thief, and the early novel, Ugly Rumours).

The reader always gains only glimpses into Wolff's characters, entering the story in medias res, in the middle of things. Quickly something develops, a revelation surfaces. Then, just as rapidly, the lights go out, the story ends. There is little explication, and unanswered questions often linger. Like the afterimage on a retina, the story's residue is there for readers to make out as best they can. Wolff's stories emerge from the fog to be beheld by the reader for a moment. Then they are over, until Wolff, like Charlie, with lantern in hand, discerns another emerging figure.


One of Wolff's more pessimistic stories—in much the same vein as “Sister” and “Soldier's Joy”—“Leviathan” offers its title as a biblical allusion key to the theme of the story. The description of the leviathan as a powerful submerged beast best left undisturbed is borrowed from the Book of Job. In Job, the writer is mightily impressed by ferocious crocodiles and marvels at what power must issue from an even more powerful creator.12 The passages devoted to the behemoth picture an awesome submerged force. “None is so fierce that dare stir him up” (Job 41:10), the Bible warns, concluding, “He maketh the deep to boil like a pot. … Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear” (Job 41:31-34).

For Helen, the story's protagonist, the leviathan is both literal and figurative; it is the whale she confronts in what she considers her finest moment, and it is the despair she has tried to suppress over her unhappy marriage, which she cannot escape because of her devotion to orthodox Catholicism. The beast is the source of the mystery and the enlightenment, the dread and what small resolution there is to be, like some “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi” in Yeats's poem “The Second Coming.”13

This particular beast's hour of birth comes around at the tail end of Helen's thirtieth birthday party, when she and her husband, Ted, and another couple, Bliss and Mitch, exhausted after a night of cocaine snorting, cast about for something to say as the sun rises on a workday morning. At this juncture in her life—and with her comedown from cocaine doing its depressant work—Helen sees her husband and her friends in a new light. To her surprise, she learns that Mitch is 40 and has had a face-lift. Later she learns that Bliss is despondent because her former husband, who has custody of her children, may be moving farther away. Helen is incredulous of Mitch's surgery and cruel about Bliss's predicament. “Still, Bliss should have thought about that when she took a walk on them, right?” (Back, 183). The reader comes to see four yuppies who are comfortable, self-indulgent, fashionable, cynical, and fairly hollow. But both Mitch and Helen perceive that something is wrong with their lives. For Helen, whatever has been submerged is making its way toward the surface. At one point, when she looks down into the apartment's pool, she sees a girl from upstairs on a float and “the long shadow of the air mattress glide along the bottom of the pool like something stalking her” (Back, 184).

When Helen's critical gaze falls on her husband, she sees his narcissism. She admits to herself that he looks great, but she “didn't understand why he had to be so obvious and crass” (Back, 185). And, as the two men try to comfort Bliss, who in selfish fashion is now crying because she could not bring herself to visit one of her children in the hospital for an operation, Helen begins to find all of them repellant. It is Mitch who first verbalizes Helen's thoughts when he says he regrets not having done much with his life. Typically, though, he wishes he had been less a milquetoast and, like Ted, more cynical and aggressive. Then, as in “Our Story Begins,” Mitch relates a story illustrating his kindness toward a hanger-on who eventually ruined his marriage. Mitch wishes he had murdered the man, but his real regret is having let himself “drift into things” he didn't like (Back, 186). Mitch believes that “Sometimes it's better to do something really horrendous than to let things slide” (Back, 188).

Whereas Helen is piqued by Mitch's story—the shadow along the bottom is coming closer to the surface—Ted delights in the idea of telling stories about the worst things they have done. Quickly Helen parries his predictably crass and cynical idea into something positive. She says they must tell the thing they're most proud of. Ted and Mitch laugh at the preposterous notion.

During her story, Helen reveals her dilemma. We hear her talk of how contemporary Catholicism has been “watered down” (Back, 189) since Vatican II, so we have more context in which to understand her cruel comment earlier about Bliss's abandonment of her family. She goes on to admit that she once wanted to become a saint, to live a Godly life; she even considered becoming a nun. This meets with a derisive laugh from Bliss, who says Helen would not have lasted two hours and calls her “Sister Morphine” (Back, 190). Helen counters sharply by saying she knows Bliss can't comprehend, but that if she had decided to become a nun nothing would have stopped her. “To me a vow is a vow” (Back, 190).

The story she tells is about taking a child with Down's syndrome out on a bay to watch for whales. A whale bumps up against the boat, and Helen fears that the child will become unmanageable and dive into the sea. When her audience tries to defend the animal's behavior, Helen calls it a “monster,” saying “He was horrible and huge and he stank.” When the whale scraped the boat, the sound was “like people moaning under water” (Back, 192). She admits her fear, and when Ted, Mitch, and Bliss interrupt to predict that the boy did dive in and that Helen dove in to save him, Helen tells them to be quiet. She says she simply “talked him down” (Back, 193) by mastering her own terror. Confronting and controlling her fear, she says, is what she is most proud of. That once, nine years ago, when she was still a young woman searching for some meaning in her life, when everything was still possible—being a saint or a nun—before the drift into what she and Mitch perceive as their present doldrums, a leviathan rose from the depths and she defeated it by turning her own fear into courage.

Only Mitch is moved by the story. Bliss is incapable of anything but a glib response, and Ted is sound asleep. But now, for a moment, the leviathan rises again to rock the frail boat that is Helen's present married life. In an act of anger and defiance, Helen slaps Ted's sleeping face. Insensitive, Ted only groans in his sleep and turns over. But when Bliss flippantly calls Ted a “slug,” Helen must defend him and her current life. She upbraids Bliss, reminding her, “Ted is my husband. Forever and ever.” And when Mitch tries to get her to talk about her unhappiness, Helen says, “There's nothing to talk about … I made my own bed” (Back, 194). She then tries to obliterate her sorrow, pouring Ted's secret stash of cocaine across the table. The story closes with Helen, Mitch, and Bliss smiling up from the cutting mirror like merry carolers outside a festive Christmas window.

Once an idealistic young woman defeated what had threatened her. But now the submerged and lurking behemoth must not even be allowed to breach, for Helen no longer has such resilience; her strict adherence to Catholicism won't allow her certain freedoms. Helen sees her marriage as a duty; she detests Bliss's failure to be responsible to her family. Yet this sense of duty has yoked her to a crass and cruel man. Instead of confronting her feelings, she desensitizes herself with more cocaine. The final smile on Helen's face is a terrible one in a world freezing up all around her.

Helen's realization of her frustrated life recalls that of other Wolff characters, in “Next Door,” “Passengers,” and “In the Garden.” Yet it is most like the story “Sister,” in which a realization offers little hope of alteration. Unlike Krystal in “Desert Breakdown,” Helen does not triumph as a result of her newly gained insight. Instead she clings to her conservative Catholicism, which she believes has been weakened over the years by liberal interventions (as do the characters in “Coming Attractions” and “The Missing Person”). Once as romantic about Catholicism as the young Father Leo, her faith yokes her forever to Ted, whom she despises. And she is not the unnamed narrator of “Wingfield,” who is able to retrieve a vestige of his innocent childhood. Instead Helen is more like Nora from “Maiden Voyage,” destined to remain with Ted out of a debilitating sense of duty and obligation.


“The Rich Brother,” the last story in Back in the World, anchors the book in one of Wolff's more persistent themes: the obligation of one person to another. Indeed, in this story the actual situation between two brothers of opposite character illustrates the ancient precept that one is surely another's keeper. Wolff renovates the biblical parable of Cain and Abel, diverting it from its usual course of bloodshed and banishment. In several stories in Back in the World, a character wrestles with egotistical self-gratification in a struggle to extend him- or herself outside that confining carapace. Often this act of moving away from self results in a crucial, liberating shift of values or the recouping of lost or obscured ones. In this way, “The Rich Brother” connects with the first story, “Coming Attractions,” to illuminate the idea. There the troubled teenager is finally able to overcome her self-absorption by plunging into an icy pool to retrieve a bicycle for her younger brother.

Pete, the rich brother, is a successful California realtor, somewhat like Russell in “The Poor Are Always with Us.” But Pete is Russell a few years later, a bit softer and more willing to change. He is also like Glen in “Passengers,” as Pete, too, will be affected by another person along for the ride. In fact, this is not only the story of Pete's revelation concerning his responsibilities toward his brother, but it is the story of Pete's salvation. For Wolff, the accumulation of material wealth deadens the soul. When Father Leo of “The Missing Person” ministers to Sandra, a lost soul, he redeems himself. For Jerry, the confidence man consumed with greed for riches, it is too late.

“The Rich Brother” is a simple moral tale. “There were two brothers, Pete and Donald” (Back, 199), Wolff begins. And the two brothers represent polar opposites. Pete is comfortable in his materialism; Donald is thrashing about in his spiritual dilemma. He is a troubled character, long on courage but short on practicality—which, of course, infuriates Pete. Once a member of an ashram in Berkeley, Donald has now been thrown out of a Pentecostal communal farm. There he has managed to give a load of groceries away to migrant workers and nearly burn the place down while cooking dinner.

The story begins when Pete, in his Mercedes, picks up Donald to take him home. Having reviewed Donald's life on the drive up, Pete is angry even before Donald gets in the car. Matters are intensified when Donald spills orange soda on the leather upholstery and then wonders what was wrong with Pete's old car that he should have bought this new one.

Later on, Donald, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and looking like “an inquisitor” (Back, 205), admits he is not good at coping in the real world. “You have to be practical. You have to be kind to yourself” (Back, 206), he says, and tells Pete he is thinking about getting into some sort of business. But soon they are arguing again, and Donald reminds Pete of how much he used to hate him, of how he often struck Donald on the scars of an operation. This Pete dismisses awkwardly, saying it never happened or, if it did, it was kid stuff, though the reader acknowledges Pete's jealousy of Donald, who was obviously sickly and so received more attention than he did. As in the biblical parable, there is a long-standing but submerged uneasiness between the two brothers, generated, it seems, by differences in habit and character. Pete, like Cain, feels his sacrifices have not been acknowledged, whereas Donald seems blessed but unaware. Donald, like Abel, lives in some sort of natural rhythm whose harmony infuriates Pete, who is left to smooth over Donald's improprieties.

The story is complicated by the catalyst of a passenger, Webster, whom the brothers pick up at a restaurant. As with Bonnie in “Passengers,” the hitchhiker precipitates the action of the story. Webster is a confidence man, out to take the two brothers for money. A glib talker, he completely fools Donald, who thinks the perspicacious Pete is cruelly indifferent to the tale of loss and tragedy Webster tells as he relates his search for lost Peruvian gold mines.

Later, when Pete awakens to find Webster gone, he discovers that Donald has given him the $100 Pete had handed to his brother earlier. Donald defends himself by telling Pete that he didn't give any money away; since he is trying to become more practical and to start a business, he explains, he invested in Webster's gold mine. When Pete explodes with anger, Donald slowly begins to understand what he has done. At this moment, Pete, like Cain, begins to realize the connection between them: “And it came to him that it would be just like this unfair life for Donald to come out ahead in the end, by believing in some outrageous promise that would turn out to be true and that he, Pete, would reject out of hand because he was too wised up to listen to anybody's pitch anymore except for laughs. What a joke. What a joke if there really was a blessing to be had, and the blessing didn't come to the one who deserved it, the one who did all the work, but to the other” (Back, 218-19).

For Pete/Cain, life is unfair; blessings might actually accrue to Donald/Abel, who, Pete believes, is unworldly, impractical, and spiritual, who has not labored nearly as hard as he has. Like Cain must have, Pete “felt a shadow move upon him, darkening his thoughts” (Back, 219). But Pete does not reach for the stone yet. Instead, he seems resigned to his role as Donald's keeper. “You can't work, you can't take care of yourself, you believe anything anyone tells you. I'm stuck with you, aren't I” (Back, 219). But then Donald demands to be let out of the car, and Pete warns him that this will be the end of their relationship.

Outside, on the shoulder of the road, Donald enrages Pete by first absolving him of any blame: “Blame me? What the hell are you talking about? Blame me for what?” (Back, 220). Then Donald adds the final straw by blessing Pete. This benediction is more than Pete can stand, and he drops to his knees searching for the murderous stone. “He didn't know what he was looking for; his hands would know when they found it” (Back, 220). But when Donald touches him on the shoulder, Pete rises and drives away, muttering about his brother's incompetence. He plays a tape and pretends he is “at liberty,” has “finished his work,” and “settled his debts.” He rehearses what he will tell his wife when she, like God (in Genesis 4:9-10), asks “Where is he? Where is your brother?” (Back, 221). To this Cain, the murderer, answers, “I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?” But Pete is not the murderer of his brother; he will not even maroon him. He is his brother's keeper, and all the time he is mumbling and upset he realizes that he is already slowing the car to turn around. He recognizes both the injustice of the world and his burden and obligation.

Wolff concludes Back in the World on a resoundingly positive note. Harboring one of his most persistent themes (as in “In the Garden,” “Liar,” “Coming Attractions,” “The Missing Person”), this refreshened parable of Cain and Abel answers the question asked but not acted on in “The Poor Are Always with Us”: “Am I my brother's keeper?” Instead of picking up the stone, Pete acknowledges his duty to his brother, who will most likely be the one blessed, while his own onerous role is ignored. Yet in his heart he cannot answer God by pretending he has no obligation. This story works in odd contrast to the pessimistic sense of duty to Ted that Helen has in “Leviathan.” In that story, her duty is as ignoble and stultifying as the loveless 50-year-old marriage between Nora and Howard in “Maiden Voyage.” But in “The Rich Brother,” the reader understands the duty as done out of love, of acceptance of an assignment in accordance with human nature. It is liberating in its responsibilities, not demeaning and personally damaging. Pete feels he must answer his wife's questions with “the right answer” (Back, 221), and the rightness of the answer has to do with the sacrifice of self out of human decency and love that will, in turn, expand the humanity of the one sacrificing.

Back in the World is unlike In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. In her review of Back in the World, Mona Simpson, comparing the two, finds Wolff's second collection “more somber” than his first, and his characters less ordinary and domestic and more symbolic and dramatic. Wolff himself says that he perceived the stories as sharing subject matter and style, more like a novel than a collection.

One of the obvious differences between the two books is reflected in Wolff's choice of titles. The title story of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs is an optimistic one, in which the protagonist, Mary, finds a sudden strength of voice with which to issue a warning to her audience about the need to mend their lives through love, kindness, and justice. The story becomes one way to interpret the entire collection. Back in the World takes its title from the bleak story of Hooper's failure to alter his life along more human lines. Wolff wants the stories to share a sense of the heavy yoke the world imposes through the burden of responsibility.

Another difference between the collections is Wolff's use of point of view, which in Back in the World produces the emblematic quality of the characters noted by Simpson. In Wolff's In the Garden, four of the dozen stories are told in the first person, the intimate point of view, which reduces the distance between the reader and the character as if the story were being related directly to the reader. In Back in the World, however, all ten stories use the third-person limited omniscient point of view, which causes the characters to remain more removed from the reader. This sustained point of view results in a consistent tone that is less confessional in places and more oracular, more “story-like” throughout.

The overall tone of Back in the World is less hopeful than that of In the Garden. Even the optimistic stories are more parabolic, less domestic, as Simpson points out, and therefore more emblematic. Missing, too, is the gentle humorous irony of the first collection; instead the irony becomes more the cosmic irony of the desperate nature of the human situation: People are intelligent, but intelligence does not often lead to significant change in character.

Certainly the themes present are those expected from Wolff: Lives are in need of repair; mending comes about through self-awareness and/or a responsive action toward another, a denial of the egotistical self in favor of a reconnection with others; the lives of others are alluring, exotic, and seductive but fraught with danger.

The opening story of Back in the World, “Coming Attractions,” and the closing one, “The Rich Brother,” are two of Wolff's most transparent calls to the importance of becoming more human by abandoning egotism for brotherly concern. But overall, the tone of the collection is not hopeful; there are fewer stories that leave the central characters open to the possibility of change. In Back in the World, “Say Yes” is the only story that comes close to “Next Door,” “Smokers,” or “Passengers.” Though “Coming Attractions,” “The Missing Person,” “Our Story Begins,” and “The Rich Brother” are optimistic, the central portion of the collection contains “The Poor Are Always with Us,” “Sister,” and “Soldier's Joy,” which are not. In the Garden concludes with four positive statements about human beings' capacity for growth and change, beginning with “Wingfield” and including “In the Garden,” “Poaching,” and “The Liar.” Back in the World closes with less optimism. In “Desert Breakdown,” as in “Face to Face,” the woman triumphs where the man fails. “Our Story Begins” is more about writing short stories than anything else. “Leviathan” portrays the ignoble face of duty, as opposed to the optimism of “The Rich Brother.”

Wolff's voice has become less hopeful in Back in the World; when characters fail, they do so more completely. Wolf indicts the contemporary Catholic Church in several stories. His fictional jeremiads are more intense, more pronounced, his voice more clarion in its insistence on the need for mending through brotherly and sisterly compassion. The yoke of the world must be borne, Wolff says, but the difficulty of the task seems more evident in this second collection, and the consequences of failure less mitigated.


  1. Mona Simpson, “The Morality of Everyday Life,” review of Back in the World,New Republic, 9 December 1985, 38; hereafter cited in the text.

  2. Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, “An Interview with Tobias Wolff,” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 4; hereafter cited in the text.

  3. Back in the World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 4; hereafter cited in the text as Back.

  4. D. H. Lawrence, “The Horse-Dealer's Daughter,” in The Complete Stories (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 450.

  5. Tobias Wolff, “Raymond Carver Had His Cake and Ate It Too,” Esquire, September 1989, 240ff.

  6. James Joyce, “Eveline,” in Dubliners (New York: Penguin, 1992), 34; hereafter cited in the text.

  7. Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Penguin, 1990), 40; hereafter cited in the text.

  8. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (New York: Penguin, 1978), 462.

  9. Albert Camus, “The Guest,” trans. Justin O'Brien, in One World of Literature, ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Norman A. Spencer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 531.

  10. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), 79.

  11. Nadine Gordimer, “The Flash of Fireflies,” in Short Story Theories, ed. Charles E. May (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976), 180; hereafter cited in the text.

  12. Roy B. Chamberlin and Herman Feldman, The Dartmouth Bible (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 463.

  13. Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 91.

Erin McGraw (review date summer 1997)

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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 illustrates the character's self-deception. In “The Life of the Body,” for instance, Wolff explains how Wiley, beaten up after making drunken advances to another man's date, tells his friend Mac's wife Alice the whole sorry story.

And then, because he trusted her and felt the need, he began to tell her what had really happened to him the night before. Alice listened without any disgust or pity that he could see. She seemed purely interested. Now and then she laughed, because in talking about it Wiley couldn't help but make his little disaster into a story, and telling stories, even those about loneliness and humiliation, naturally brought out the hambone and wag in him. He could see she was having a good time listening to him, that this wasn't what she'd expected when Mac asked her to look in on him. And she was hearing some straight talk. She didn't get that at home. Mac was good-hearted, but he was also a tomcat and a liar.

The passage illustrates the progress of Wiley's self-deception and the insidiousness of his desire to claim the moral high ground, even at his friend's expense. Wiley begins talking out of a sincere desire to tell the truth, but before long his confession becomes a performance—he becomes a hambone and a wag, with those homey words suggesting the depth of his self-appreciation. Meanwhile, his rediscovered self-confidence distracts him from the humiliating truth, coaxing him into reflecting with pleasure on his superiority to his friend, the tomcat and liar.

In a single narrative paragraph Wolff charts Wiley's moral wobbliness, his craving to think well of himself. Such moments, when a character's self-serving thought process is rendered with ruthless accuracy, occur frequently in The Night in Question—indeed, throughout all of Wolff's work. But they are usually followed by moments of deep, unhappy self-recognition, and it is in these revelatory moments that Wolff's stories take on their greatest urgency.

Characters who have acknowledged their own limitations, however briefly and reluctantly, come to see the events their lies and justifications have set in motion. In “The Other Miller,” a young GI (Miller) refuses to speak to his mother or answer her letters since she has married a man whom Miller disapproves of. Miller, priding himself on his own sternness, “wants her to understand that her son is not a man to turn the other cheek. He is a serious man. Once you've crossed him, you've lost him.” Gratified by this vision of himself, Miller preens, and the story follows every turn of his mind, to the chilling point at which he finally sees that his refusal to accept his mother's decision has left him abandoned.

Even more dire is “The Chain,” which begins with a dog attacking the young daughter of Brian Gold, the manager of an inner-city video store. The girl escapes unharmed, but a desire for vengeance has been loosed, and before the story is over, Gold finds himself outside of a nightclub with a crowbar, about to damage the BMW belonging to a man who dented Gold's cousin's car. A complicated chain of assaults and revenge has brought him to this point, but Gold isn't thinking about any of those events. Instead, he thinks about the ungrateful neighborhood kids who come into his store and mock him. Humiliated and angry, he whacks the car's door, “knowing just as the act passed beyond recall how absolutely he had betrayed himself.” He races away from the scene, but the action will have its consequences. By the time the story ends, an innocent, gifted young boy will be killed, and Gold will understand that he is responsible.

These plot summaries suggest that The Night in Question is a gloomy book, which it is not. The book's honesty might make some readers wince, but it will also make most readers laugh. Wolff's eye for detail is sharp, his control of nuance complete. His trademark deadpan tone frequently lends his stories a droll, solemn absurdity that is delightful. “Smorgasbord,” for example, presents an adolescent narrator sitting and eating with a friend:

I tried to eat with a little finesse and so did Crosley, dabbing his lips with a napkin between every bulging mouthful, but some of the people around us had completely slipped their moorings. They ducked their heads low to receive their food, and while they chewed it up they looked around suspiciously and circled their plates with their forearms. A big family to our left was the worst. There was something competitive and desperate about them; they seemed to be eating their way toward a condition where they would never have to eat again. You would have thought they were refugees from a great hunger, that outside these walls the land was afflicted with drought and barrenness. I felt a kind of desperation myself; I felt like I was growing emptier with every bite I took.

The passage begins at a comic tilt, with Crosley carefully dabbing his lips while his mouth bulges, and the narrator is at some pains to remind us that however bad he and Crosley were, the other customers were worse. But the paragraph changes, darkens, until the narrator unexpectedly finds common ground with the very people he'd been mocking earlier, as together they eat and eat and eat, knowing that their hunger will not be stated.

This generous, saving insight is vintage Wolff. The salvation his characters achieve is never uncomplicated and rarely total, but it rings true. The Night in Question is a superb book, probably Wolff's best. His stories show characters registering deep changes—those that occur almost below the level of language—perfectly revealed in a modulation of narrative tone, an adjustment of stance, a shift of attitude in the characters' vivid interior lives.

Tobias Wolff and Elizabeth Glass (interview date July 1997)

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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 his job teaching creative writing at Syracuse University. Instead, the book focuses singly on the good and bad of childhood—about growing up with a mother who cared for and protected him, yet who was unable to deter the stepfather who beat and berated him. The terrain it covers is tough.

This statement from that book's opening can serve as a sort of metaphor for Wolff's style of literary memoir—a style that has influenced today's market for memoirs.

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I've allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story. My first stepfather used to say that what I didn't know would fill a book. Well, here it is.

[Glass]: How do you define the difference between autobiography and memoir?

[Wolff]: I think of autobiography as something politicians might write, in which they would use a lot of supporting documents, would be about affairs of the state, and would be as documentary-like as possible. A memoir is literally the story your memory tells you. You're not going back to source documents in your memory. The memoir tries to preserve that story.

Given that, did you conduct any traditional “research” when writing This Boy's Life?

A little bit. But very general research. One thing I didn't do while I was writing This Boy's Life was go back to Washington state because I had a really clear memory of it and of what people and things looked like. So going back and actually seeing people and that place, which I did do after I wrote the book, would have confused me, flooded me with too much detail, too much of the present, too many different versions of what I already had a pretty clear version of. Even if it was entirely subjective and my own, as my memory is, I didn't want to muddy it up.

How do you determine the scope of a memoir?

When I begin a memoir, I really don't know where the final book will begin. I begin with a wing and a prayer, and just sail in where I guess would be the right place to begin. In the process of writing—not just a memoir, but short stories and novels, too—I find that my conception of the project changes tremendously as I'm writing.

When I begin something, I rarely think, “this is where it's going to be at the end of the day.” Two, three, four or even five years down the line, when I've finished all the revisions and I'm ready to say “this is a book,” it's going to be very different from when I started.

Where to begin is actually a decision you make several times along the way in the process of changing things. You have to harmonize the beginning with the rest of the book. You discover not only the beginning but also the rest of the book, the rest of the story, by writing it.

When I'm writing out of memory, a great deal of material comes up; more than I could ever include in a book. Every memory is connected to another memory, and that's connected to some other memory. You get as much of it down as you can that seems even vaguely to the point, then when you proceed further in the writing, you begin to understand more of what you're really trying to say.

You're not just going to write down, “Well this happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then this happened to me.” You're trying to discern a pattern from these experiences. What is significant about what happened? How would some of these experiences tell us something—not only about one's self, but about human beings in general. What happens to us? How do we respond? Is there something in what you're putting down that could be learned and useful to other people?

So the patterns in what you eventually discern in your own experience will determine what you put in and leave out. You don't leave things out necessarily because you're embarrassed by them, but you also don't put things in just because they're horrible. You don't say “Oh, this is something horrible I did; I better put this in or I'm dishonest.”

You're trying to figure out how to present the story of your life as your memory tells it to you, but only those parts of your life that make up a coherent shape—and maybe events don't really have a coherent shape, but our memories give them one, and suggest those shapes to us—and that's what tells us what to put in and leave out. As well as where to begin and where to end when you've got it all down and you're putting it all together. Then you begin to see—this is where the story begins; this is where it really ends.

A review in Critique magazine criticized you for not including the current parts of your life in This Boy's Life, for ending the book while you're still a child. Readers know that Vietnam is coming, but you don't take them any further.

Things have to end somewhere. Look again at the title of that book; it doesn't say This Man's Life, it says This Boy's Life. I was concerned not to just say “This happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then I became this and then I became that.” It was a portrait of an American boyhood. At the end of that book, that boy is no longer a boy, he's becoming a young man.

We see that until then, he's operated with a net under him all the time, and that net has been his mother's steadfastness. At the end of that book, he's going off, and his mistakes will have consequences. We understand even that they will be so consequential that they will land him in the Army, and send him overseas.

But nevertheless, that phase in his life is over at the end of the book, and I think it would have been a mistake to continue it. I know a lot of people thought that I somehow owed it to readers to let them know how I got from point A to point B. Well, I don't think I owe readers that. What I owe readers is an honest accounting of how a certain phase of this boy's life was lived out, and how this person survived it. Particularly, I was interested in the problem of identity in that book: How do we become who we are? The kinds of patterns I kept seeing in the writing of that book had to do with invention and imagination, as a way of suggesting to us who we are; trying on different poses.

I was much more interested in the patterns of behavior that suggested the future writer, things I had forgotten until I was writing the book: the way I used to change my name all the time, invent histories for myself, even to the final act of writing a number of recommendation letters [to gain admission to prep school] for myself. In fact, I created a fictional character. It was quite a work of fiction when taken all together.

To ask, “How did he become a writer?”—I think the answer is very much in this book. I didn't need to say, “I published my first story in The Atlantic and then I got a book contract.” That's not how you become a writer. You become a writer in your childhood. You become a writer by thinking and seeing the world in certain ways, and behaving in certain ways, and I think that's all there.

This Boy's Life reads much like a novel; it's very beautifully written with wonderful metaphors.

The intention was to write the book as I do my fiction, with as much clarity as I could, with a language that would not compromise the sense of the boy's autonomy or integrity, to give a vivid sense of the person it's about. And in a way, the voice stands in for me. I don't come in and say, “Here I am; this is who I am now.” But it's clearly an adult telling the story of a boy. So it's a highwire act; you have the adult voice telling the story of the boy he used to be. I didn't want to infringe on the boy, or seem like I'm bullying him, so a certain reticence is required as well.

Whether it reads like a novel to someone is beyond my control. I think the important thing to the memoirist is to keep it straight what they're doing: If they're writing a memoir, then they're writing a memoir. If they're writing a novel, then they're writing a novel.

But if you see patterns in your life that appear to be novelistic, so be it. It's your life. A lot of us see our lives in the patterns of narrative, especially those who write a lot. When I started that book, I was 40, 41 years old, and I had been writing fiction since I was 16. So I had the habits of 25 years—not of making things up, but about structure, framing things, language. So a lot of what goes on in that book are probably things that are unconscious, and things I wasn't particularly aware of, but come from the habits of a lifetime.

In the book's opening you write “my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome.” That sentence seems to speak to issues of honesty and the integrity of memory.

That doesn't have so much to do with honesty as differences of opinion. And there's bound to be a lot of that. We all see our pasts differently, even pasts that we've shared with other people will be seen differently by those people. You know how it is, when you sit around a table with a bunch of relatives, and you start talking about things that happened 10, 15 years ago, and how ever many people are there is how many stories are there. So we all construct a different story about the past.

If you're writing something you're going to call a memoir, I think you owe it to your readers to be as honest as you can be. And that includes sometimes putting things in a memoir that may not make you proud, but are an essential part of the story. Otherwise you end up with a book in which you're the one who always has the virtue while everyone else does everything wrong. You're the one who always says the smart things while everybody else says dumb things. That's just a way of going back and doing right what you didn't do right the first time. But it isn't very interesting.

We all know that we were complicit in the things that happen to us; nobody is a pure victim—well, maybe small children. More often than not, most of us had something to do with the things that have gone wrong with our lives. To understand that is as important as trying to get even with someone for the things they might have done.

I think at its best, a memoir is a tremendous instrument for understanding oneself and one's history, but you must be willing to acknowledge when your history wasn't what you wish it was.

Given that today's literary memoir is so different from autobiography, it seems that having some story to tell is far more important to a book than a life's particular events. Do you think everyone has a memoir inside them?

It isn't so much the shape of the story as it is how you see your life. Everyone's life has the potential for drama, and has had drama in it, and oddity; if you see them. It all depends on how you see your life.

Some people live the most extraordinarily interesting lives, and have no idea. For example, when I was a reporter at The Washington Post in 1972, I wanted to interview people who were famous for something for a very brief time, find out what happened to them since, then have them look back on that event.

One of the people I rooted out was a guy who'd been on the Hindenburg when it exploded. He jumped from the gondola, a fall of about three stories, broke his leg, and was found by his servant. He and this servant would whistle particular tunes to each other, and that's how they found each other in crowds. So the servant whistled, and the man whistled back, and the servant came over and took him to safety.

And this guy was so boring. He had no idea that what he had lived through was one of the most extraordinary incidents of the century, or if he did know it, he only knew it in a factual way, not in a dramatic way. He didn't understand the human scale of this; how complex and interesting a story it was. And when he said to me, “Oh, it didn't have anything else to do with the rest of my life,” all I could think was, “Well, if it didn't then you're a fool.”

It really is a question of the way people see their lives; not so much the lives they've had. I know people who've had uneventful lives in conventional terms who can tell their stories in such a way that you're excited and amused by them.

In In Pharaoh's Army people are sometimes described as looking like food. Does the symbolism in your work …

People are described as looking like food? Really? Maybe I have cannibalistic urges that are showing up that way. I've really never noticed that. That's funny; I'll have to look.

Things come out in books that writers are unaware of. I've had it pointed out to me, for example, that dogs meet very unhappy fates in my work. And it's true. There are a lot of dogs, and none of them end well. That isn't something I set out to do; it's just because dogs don't end well, especially the ones I've known.

Readers who want to make something of that are perfectly in their rights to read it that way. It doesn't matter if the writer meant for it to be there or not.

Do you use specific repeating symbols?

In memoir particularly, I don't put things in on purpose. But I noticed, for example, in This Boy's Life there's a lot of singing going on. By the time I wrote the last draft of that book, I was very well aware of when people were doing it, and that it did create a certain mood at different times. It begins with the boy and his mother in the car singing a song, and it ends with the boy and his friend singing a song. Music was something that sustained me as a child. I wanted readers to be aware of that, even if they didn't realize it. It affects the sense of mood and where the person is.

Do you have any final words of advice to beginning writers?

Do it. Work hard at it. But do it.

Daniel D. Challener (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10291

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 himself in the mirror:

The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression. Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.

He studied me as if I held the answer.

Luckily for him, he was no judge of men. If he had seen the fissures in my character he might have known what he was in for. He might have known that he was headed for all kinds of trouble, and, knowing this, he might have lost heart before the game even got started.

But he saw nothing to alarm him. He took a step forward, stuck his hands in his pockets, threw back his shoulders and cocked his head. There was a dash of swagger in his pose, something of the stage cavalier, but his smile was friendly and hopeful.


The dichotomy between the speaker and the image in the mirror is dramatic and revealing. For Toby, the image in the mirror is the embodiment of what he has always wanted to be—a self-assured, independent, all-American boy. Yet Toby knows that he is not the elegant stranger in the mirror, but rather the mirror image of that figure. He is very thankful that the boy in the mirror and his benefactor are “no judge of men” and cannot see “the fissures in his character.” If they could, he believes that they would surely abandon him.

I begin my discussion of This Boy's Life with a description of this scene because I believe it speaks to the central issues of Tobias Wolff's childhood—his deep desire to be the all-American boy and his profound sense of inadequacy because he feels he is not that boy. Throughout This Boy's Life, Toby struggles to demonstrate his masculinity, be the stage cavalier, and act the tough and independent boy that American culture idealizes. Yet no matter what Toby does, he always knows that he does not measure up to the rigid specifications of the all-American boy. In part, Toby's pervading sense of inadequacy can be blamed on the unobtainable nature of the mythic all-American boy. However, Toby's sense of personal failing must be more substantially blamed on a half dozen different men who mistreat him and savage his confidence throughout his youth.

Toby is repeatedly rejected and humiliated by men who cross his path. After his mother separates from his father, Toby does not receive even so much as a letter from his father for ten years. His mother's subsequent companions and her second husband belittle and abuse Toby in some of the cruelest ways imaginable. In a sense, This Boy's Life is not only a chronicle of the pressures that American boys feel as they attempt to live up to the American ideal of boyhood but also a chronicle of the damage that men can inflict on boys and, more specifically, that fathers can inflict on their sons.

Yet, despite all its sadness and poignancy, This Boy's Life ultimately testifies to the resilience of children and the enormous power and importance that a mother's support can provide. Because of his own intelligence and resilience, the unconditional love and support of his mother, and, ultimately, his ability to describe, in writing, who he wants to be and how he wants to live, Tobias Wolff escapes a grim childhood and lives not only to write about it but to live and love well.


Tobias Wolff begins his childhood autobiography by remembering how when he was seven, his mother separated from Toby's philandering father and took him, the youngest of her two sons, on a drive west to start a new life. Like generations of 19th century Americans, they are going west to strike it rich, not with gold in California, but with newly prized uranium in Utah. And while they dream of striking it rich, they also dream of taking on new identities, transforming themselves into the people that they want to be. Toby, although only seven, wants to become a “new man.”

The second chapter of his autobiography begins with this reminiscence of their first days in their new home state of Utah:

I didn't come to Utah to be the same boy I'd been before. I had my own dreams of transformation. Western dreams, dreams of freedom and dominion and taciturn self-sufficiency. The first thing I wanted to do was to change my name. A girl named Toby had joined my class before I left Florida, and this had caused both of us scalding humiliation.

I wanted to call myself Jack, after Jack London. I believed that having his name would charge me with some of the strength and competence inherent in my idea of him. The odds were good that I'd never have to share a classroom with a girl name Jack.


This passage is rich with Toby's desire to become the all-American boy, full of the values that “real men” possess. He dreams of “freedom” and “dominion.” He wants to be self-sufficient and taciturn, a combination of Jack Armstrong and Jack London.

Feminist critic Nina Baym has argued that the commonly accepted canon of American literature revolves around “melodramas of beset manhood,” overwrought stories about men leaving civilization and striking out for a new unsettled land where they can live an unfettered life and become the ideal men they want to be, free from society's conventions and women's demands (63-80). Since Toby is traveling with his mother, his journey west cannot be an exact reenactment of this paradigm. Nevertheless, the qualities Toby wants “freedom,” “taciturn self-sufficiency,” and “dominion” are exactly the qualities that Baym points out that Natty Bumpo and Huck Finn and Ishmael search for and that are typically seen as quintessentially male.

Moreover, Toby does not want to be mistaken for a girl. The first thing he wants to do is change his name. He wants to be Jack because it sounds strong and male and because it reminds him of Jack London (another author who champions men going off into the womanless wilderness and proving their courage, self-sufficiency, and power). Toby hopes that a new name will give him strength and competence, qualities that he believes will help him demonstrate his masculinity and put to rest any questions about why he ended up with his mother and not his father.

Toby worries constantly about his masculinity. Why did his father choose to let Toby go with his mother yet keep Toby's older brother, Geoffrey? Why did Toby want to stay with his mother? Is he a “momma's boy?” Although his mother agrees to let him change his name, throughout most of his childhood Toby struggles to take on not just the name but to act the part of a Jack. Again and again, This Boy's Life describes Toby's endless attempts to act as he thinks men should act.

After he and his mother settle in Salt Lake City, Toby decides that more than anything he wants a gun. He believes that a gun will make him independent and whole: “A weapon was the first condition of self-sufficiency, and of being a real Westerner, and of all acceptable employment—trapping, riding herd, soldiering, law enforcement and outlawry. I needed that rifle, for itself and for the way it completed me when I held it” (23).

Toby's mother lets her son have a gun and in short order he begins to use it to enact fantasies of domination over neighbors and imaginary soldiers. First, Toby marches around the apartment like a soldier, then he strikes brave poses in front of the mirror, and finally he pretends that he is a sniper and spends hours at his apartment window aiming a loaded gun at unsuspecting passersby. He revels in the feeling of power this gives him:

Hammer cocked, a round in the chamber, finger resting lightly on the trigger, I drew a bead on whoever walked by—women pushing strollers, children, garbage collectors laughing and calling to each other, anyone—and as they passed under my window I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in ecstasy of my power over them, and their absurd and innocent belief that they were safe.


Toby's need for power and control is palpable here, reflecting his sense of a lack of control over his own life while he lives in Salt Lake City. He and his mother move from apartment to apartment, unconnected to the rest of their family and apart from the strong family and religious structure of the dominant Mormon community.

Toby spends much of his time in Utah feeling deeply inadequate and at fault for not having a father and not having a “respectable” home:

I was subject to fits of feeling myself unworthy, somehow deeply at fault. It didn't take much to bring this sensation to life, along with the certainty that everybody but my mother saw through me and did not like what they saw.


In a particularly poignant scene of his first confession, Toby feels so guilty that he cannot even begin to confess:

I thought about what to confess, but I could not break my sense of being at fault down to its components. Trying to get a particular sin out of it was like fishing a swamp, where you feel the tug of something that at first seems promising and then resistant and finally hopeless as you realize that you've snagged the bottom, that you have the whole planet on the other end of your line.


Such a deeply felt sense of guilt and inadequacy is not uncommon to children of divorced or separated parents. As we'll explore more fully in the final chapter, Debra Mullholland, Norman Watt, Emmy Werner, Robert Blakeslee, and Thomas Wallerstein have all shown that children commonly assume that it is their failings and misbehavior that caused parents to separate; the damage from this guilt often endures throughout childhood and into adulthood.

In her study of 60 children of divorce, Debra Mulholland shows that children of divorce typically experience considerable pain and difficulties. Their experiences often include receiving lower grades in school, having a persistent and long term lack of motivation in school and at home, fewer friends, and less involvement in activities and social events. Moreover, Mulholland finds that “at least some children of divorce experience residual effects insidiously over many years … [divorce] acts like a slow virus … and that the acute disturbances that erupt at the onset of parental divorce, although not easily dismissed, are relatively benign in contrast with the longer term, insidious but potent effects that dampen the vitality and enthusiasm of children and jaundice their outlook on life” (278-279).

The full impact of his parents' separation is unknowable, of course, but surely some of Toby's sense of guilt and his obsession to prove his masculinity stem from being separated from and rejected by his own father. When Toby's parents decided that their marriage had to end, Toby's older brother, Geoffrey, stayed with his father and Toby went with his mother. In a moving and telling scene, Toby recalls some early days in Utah that he spent searching for his father and pretending that indeed he found him. The scene Toby provides is Freudian, in simplest terms a search for a father:

Most afternoons I wandered around in the trance that habitual solitude induces. I walked downtown and stared at merchandise. I imagined being adopted by different people I saw on the street. Sometimes, seeing a man in a suit come toward me from a distance that blurred his features, I would prepare myself to meet my father and to be recognized by him. Then we would pass each other and a few minutes later I would pick someone else.


Toby's desire to be recognized and accepted by his father is apparent throughout his autobiography. Moreover, for most of his autobiography, Toby makes few critical comments about his father. Toby imagines him as an ideal man, a perfect father, and never questions why he never writes or calls or visits. Instead, he spends his time wondering what he did that made him so expendable to his own father.

Interestingly, Geoffrey Wolff, Tobias Wolff's brother, has written his own childhood autobiography, one that focuses primarily on his relationship with their father. The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father is a sad story. Geoffrey poignantly recounts his youth, continually and at times uncharitably describing the many failings of his father. Geoffrey and Tobias's father was a man whose life was a web of deception, full of lies about his education and employment, tastes and experiences.

Early in The Duke of Deception, in one of only a handful of references to Toby, Geoffrey indicates that he stayed with his father and Toby went with his mother because of their personalities. Geoffrey was more aggressive and outgoing, like his father, while Toby was smaller, quieter, and more like his mother. In The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey recalls that after a stomach operation, Toby became “fussy and spoiled” and took

advantage of an absolute injunction against hitting or pushing him, and my mother took his side in our disputes: [Toby] was endangered in a way I was not, he was littler, and he resembled [my mother] in appearance and temperament as I resembled my father. Greater distance opened between us. I would swear that [my father] did nothing to divide my mother from me, that he never suggested that she wasn't brilliant or that her taste wasn't flawless. Yet my mother felt his judgment on her like a weight, and if memory is false, perhaps she and I were nudged, and did not merely drift, apart.


Whether Toby's father did or did not side with Geoffrey is perhaps a moot point. What Toby remembers is what counts, and Toby remembers feeling a sense of being rejected by his father.

While Toby rarely criticizes his father, there is a powerful passage in the middle of This Boy's Life in which Tobias Wolff breaks the chronology of the story of his childhood and reveals just how much damage his father did to him. This passage comes at a point where Toby and Rosemary are living in Chinook, Washington with a man named Dwight, whom Rosemary married in an attempt to provide Toby with a father. The marriage turns out miserably, and Dwight verbally and physically abuses Toby. At the point of the passage, Toby is remembering how and why he missed his real father:

[My real father] had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect. I could see him as I wanted to see him. I could give him sterling qualities and imagine good reasons, even romantic reasons, why he had taken no interest, why he had never written to me, why he seemed to have forgotten I existed. I made excuses for him long after I should have known better.


Toby's words echo Maya Angelou's words after she and her brother Bailey receive Christmas gifts from their parents, whom they have not seen in years:

The gifts opened the door to questions that neither of us wanted to ask. Why did they send us away? and What did we do so wrong? So Wrong? Why, at three and four, did we have tags put on our arms to be sent by train alone from Long Beach, California to Stamps, Arkansas, with only the porter to look after us?


Why? Why? Why? the children ask. And then Wolff breaks the chronology of his story and reveals that long after his childhood he realized not only how naive he had been in his sympathetic judgement of his father but also just how much his father had hurt him:

This way of thinking [that his father was perfect and had good reasons for not paying his son any attention] worked pretty well until my first child was born. He came three weeks early, when I was away from home. The first time I saw him, in the hospital nursery, a nurse was trying to take a blood sample from him … When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew that I was more alive than I had been before. But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn't understand what it was until it came upon me again that night, so sharply I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, and for days I shook with it when I wasn't shaking with joy for my son, and for the new life I had been given.


As he holds his first born child—a moment that for myself was the single most exhilarating experience of my life, save for my marriage ceremony—Tobias Wolff feels joy and awe but also the pain of his father's rejection.

While Toby's father wounds him, so too do virtually all the other men that Rosemary meets during Toby's childhood. In Utah, Rosemary and Toby live with Roy, a pathetic ne'er do well who has chased Rosemary across the country. Roy does not work; he has a small inheritance and receives disability checks that give him a reason not to look for a job. He spends his days fishing and hunting and reading The Shooter's Bible. Roy is so insecure that every afternoon when Rosemary's job as a secretary is over, he gets in his Jeep and shadows her home to make sure that she is not being unfaithful to him. When she won't do exactly what he wants, he whines. And when that doesn't work, he hits her.

Toby does not know the specifics of what Roy does to his mother, but he understands that Roy hurts her:

My mother didn't tell me what went on between her and Roy, the threats and occasional brutality with which he held her in place … Only now and then there came a night when she couldn't do anything but sit and cry, and then I comforted her, but I never knew the reasons.


Perhaps because he sees that his mother chooses to live with Roy, or perhaps because he sees no other better male role models, Toby assumes that Roy is “what a man should be:”

Roy was handsome in the conventional way that appeals to boys. He had a tattoo. He'd been to war and kept a kind of silence about it that was full of heroic implications. He was graceful in his movements. He could fix the Jeep if he had to, though he preferred to drive halfway across Utah to a mechanic he'd heard about from some loudmouth in a bar. He was an expert hunter who always got his buck.


Rosemary's relationship with Roy sends Toby all sorts of mixed messages of what a man should be. Toby sees that the man his mother chooses to live with is violent and lazy, that somehow being ruggedly handsome and having a tattoo, military experience, and the ability to fix a jeep and shoot a buck are acceptable qualifications to win the affection of his mother.

Luckily for Toby, when Roy starts to talk about having a family, Rosemary starts packing. She and Toby leave without even saying goodbye to Roy. They take a bus to Seattle, but here Rosemary only finds more abusive men. Her first encounter is at SeaFair, a public carnival on Seattle's waterfront. She meets two men who win her attention by ingratiating themselves with Toby. They offer him lunch and a bicycle, and Rosemary subsequently accepts an invitation to dinner with the older member of the duo. What happens on the date is not entirely clear, but the implication is that Rosemary's date tries to force her to have intercourse.

Her fortunes get no better. Rosemary begins to date another man, named Dwight. He lives three hours north of Seattle in a company town called Chinook. Although he too is pathetic—a liar and a tyrant—Rosemary considers his marriage proposal because she so wants Toby to have a father. But before she accepts Dwight's proposal, Rosemary arranges for Toby to move to Chinook and live with Dwight and his three children for a trial run.

From his very first day in Chinook, Toby is abused by Dwight. Having heard from one of Rosemary's friends that Toby imitates him, Dwight roughs up Toby the first night he is in Chinook. Every night thereafter, Dwight requires him to spend at least an hour tending to a fiendishly useless task—husking horsechestnuts. He arranges for Toby to take on the town's paper route but keeps every penny of Toby's pay. He gives Toby orders every day and punishes him for the slightest transgressions. And he makes an in-depth study of Toby's shortcomings:

Dwight made a study of me. He thought about me during the day while he grunted over the engines of trucks and generators, and in the evening while he watched me eat, and late at night while he sat heavy-lidded at the kitchen table with a pint of Old Crow and a package of Camels to support him in his deliberations. He shared his findings as they came to him. The trouble with me was, I thought I was going to get through life without doing any work. The trouble with me was, I thought I was smarter than everyone else. The trouble with me was, I thought other people couldn't tell what I was thinking. The trouble with me was, I didn't think.


But ultimately when Rosemary asks Toby if she should marry Dwight, Toby tells her to go ahead. He cannot articulate how badly he has been treated. In part, his silence stems from his deeply held belief that he is at fault; like his initial attempt at confession, he believes that he is the cause and he deserves his situation:

I had come to feel that all of this was fated, that I was bound to accept as my home a place I did not feel at home in, and to take as my father a man who was offended by my existence and would never stop questioning my right to it. I did not believe my mother when she told me it wasn't too late.


Consequently, Rosemary accepts Dwight's proposal and moves to Chinook, but their marriage is almost immediately nightmarish. Their Vancouver honeymoon ends prematurely and when they return they are not speaking. In the weeks that follow, Dwight verbally and physically abuses Rosemary and constantly complains about the cost of raising Toby. Most nights, Dwight gets drunk and on more than one occasion ends up hitting Toby.

Modeling the behavior of Dwight and Roy, Toby gets himself into fist fights. His first fight is with Arthur, a boy who is actually a good friend. After the fight, Toby finds that Dwight is not angry at him but impressed and gleefully tells neighbors that “his boy” gave another boy a shiner. A year later, Toby gets into another fight with Arthur and, since the fight took place at school, their school's shop teacher demands that the two boys make their argument part of a school sponsored “smoker,” an evening of boxing matches between the boys in the high school. Tickets cost three dollars and sell out in a matter of days. Dwight, of course, is delighted and pays Toby more attention in the days before the fight than ever before.

The fight itself is a horrendous display of rabid parents and roundhouse punches. For the most part, Toby takes a pretty bad beating, but he does land one or two punches. When he does hit Arthur, Toby feels something he has never felt before: a bond of love between himself and Dwight:

I caught [Arthur] with that uppercut twice more during the final round, but neither of them rocked him like that first one. That first one was a beaut. I launched it from my toes and put everything I had into it, and it shivered his timbers. I could feel it travel through him in one pure line. I could feel it hurt him. And when it landed, and my old friend's head snapped back so terribly, I felt a surge of pride and connection; connection not to him but to Dwight. I was distinctly aware of Dwight in that bellowing mass all around me. I could feel his exultation at the blow I'd struck, feel his own pride in it, see him smiling down at me with recognition and pleasure, and something like love.


Toby feels his step-father's “exultation” and “something like love” when he hits another boy. This explicit connection between love and violence and father and son is central to an understanding of the forces that shape Tobias Wolff's childhood. The ritualization of the violence—and the community's support of it—also explain something of what this boy's life was really like.

While the community of Chinook offers Toby very little of the kind of varied and extraordinary support that Stamps provided Maya Angelou, the community's local Boy Scout Troop did provide Toby with recreation, some friends, and some opportunities to demonstrate skills and mastery. Scouting gives him a chance to make friends and earn the respect of other boys and men. Scouting also offers him the opportunity to learn the skills of independent frontiersmen, manly skills such as rope craft, hiking, camping, cooking without utensils.

In her path-breaking work on the development of self-esteem in children, Edith Jacobson has shown that a child's self-esteem is in large part developed through “the experience by the child of real accomplishment, the pleasure or satisfaction in successful mastery of tasks or activities he or she has initiated. The experience of being effective or competent in areas the child designates as important to his or her self-concept, whether physical attraction, athletics, intellectual achievement or popularity with peers, will contribute strongly to positive self-regard” (Mack and Hickler 103). As Jacobson argues most children do, Toby enjoys the sense of mastery that he gets from Boy Scouting and the cloth merit badges that he gets. He marvels at the status that the badges and their concomitant ranks give him and quickly develops “a headwaiter's eye” in order to read the uniforms of other scouts and see who has what status.

But perhaps most of all, Toby enjoys Boy Scouting because it allows him to participate in his fantasy of becoming the ideal boy that Boy Scouting—and American culture—promote: “But I liked being a scout. I was stirred by the elevated diction in which we swore our fealty to the chaste chivalric fantasies of Lord Baden-Powell” (102). He reads the Scout Handbook and likes its voice, “the bluff hail-fellow language by which it tried to make being a good boy seem adventurous, even romantic.” Toby especially enjoys reading the official publication of Boy Scouting, the magazine Boys' Life:

I read it in a trance, accepting without question its narcotic invitation to believe that I was really no different from the boys whose hustle and pluck it celebrated. Boys who raised treasure from Spanish galleons, and put empty barns to use by building operational airplanes in them. Boys who skied to the North Pole. Boys who sailed around the Horn, solo. Boys who saved lives, and were accepted into savage tribes, and sent themselves to college by running traplines in the wilderness.


One needs only to browse through a few copies of 1950's Boys' Life to recognize the “narcotic invitation” the magazine could offer to a boy wanting to be a “real boy.” The magazine is filled with adventure stories and columns on skills and hobbies (model railroading and magic tricks, cooking without utensils and hiking by the stars). As he reads Boys' Life, Toby can dream about (and feel a part of) this idealized world of independent, self-sufficient, rugged boys.

Wolff's description of Boys' Life as something that celebrates boys with “hustle and pluck” calls to mind Horatio Alger's boys who use a little bit of luck and pluck to become American success stories. And while Wolff's allusion to Alger is relevant here, Wolff's own allusion to Boys' Life is even more relevant. Tobias Wolff entitles his childhood autobiography This Boy's Life—and in so doing he calls to mind the differences between his life, chronicled in This Boy's Life, and the idealized world of boys featured in Boys' Life. Wolff's title reminds us that his life was not in any way like that of the boys featured in the official publication of Boy Scouting. That is Boys' Life and he is telling us a different story, the story of this boy's life. The difference of those two worlds is at the heart of Wolff's work.

There is, I am told, another allusion in Wolff's title, this one to Edmund White's quasi-fictional, quasi-autobiographical work, A Boy's Own Story. While White's novel is primarily concerned with the main character's homosexuality, A Boy's Own Story and This Boy's Life both consider very carefully the notion of masculinity, relationships between fathers and sons, men and boys. After This Boy's Life was published, Edmund White received a letter from Tobias Wolff in which Wolff thanked White and acknowledged that A Boy's Own Story was much in his mind while writing This Boy's Life.

Toby's fascination with Boy Scouting reflects his deep desire to demonstrate and possess the qualities he believes will prove his masculinity. At all costs, he wants to avoid being perceived as a sissy. While he is in Boy Scouts, Arthur, the boy he fought in the school sponsored “smoker,” becomes his best friend. Arthur is bright, sensitive, and, like Toby, very lonely. But Arthur is also un-athletic and unwilling to try to play the part of the all-American boy. Toby never allows himself to be perceived as Arthur's best friend for fear of the two being labeled queer. Yet the two boys spend a great deal of time together, and at one point they kiss each other. But whenever he is away from Arthur, Toby makes a point of belittling Arthur and telling other boys that Arthur is a sissy.

Toby is convinced that he must choose between being a man or being a sissy, being a boy scout or being a friend of Arthur. He visualizes masculinity as an “either/or proposition” and at all turns he makes decisions that he believes are in harmony with being a man. In her book Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin argues convincingly that the notion of sexual absolutes is both ridiculous and dangerous:

The discovery is, of course, that “man” and “woman” are fictions, caricatures, cultural constructs. As models they are reductive, totalitarian, inappropriate to human becoming. As roles they are static, demeaning to the female, dead-ended for male and female both …

We are, clearly, a multisexed species which has its sexuality spread along a vast continuum where the elements called male and female are not discrete.


For Toby, however, his world view is of absolutes. He is obsessed with the desire to be “male” and not “female.”

As Toby gets older, he comes to blows with his Dwight more and more frequently, sometimes over things as significant as telling lies and sometime over things as trivial as not getting all the mustard out of a mustard jar. Finally, the violence between the two of them is too much for Rosemary, and she arranges for Toby to live with another family. As Toby is leaving, he shakes hands with Dwight but realizes that their banal wishes for “good luck” are insincere:

We hated each other. We hated each other so much that other feelings didn't get enough light. It disfigured me. When I think of Chinook I have to search for the faces of my friends, their voices, the rooms where I was made welcome. But I can always see Dwight's face and hear his voice. I hear his voice in my own when I speak to my children in anger. They hear it too, and look at me in surprise. My youngest once said, “Don't you love me anymore?”


In this passage, as he does in the passage about the birth of his first child, Tobias Wolff breaks the chronology of his autobiography and projects the reader into the present. As before, this technique draws attention to the point he is making and lends weight to his observation. We hear an adult speaking about the present (not an adult trying to remember the past) and we recognize just how long that emotion has survived. The hatred between Toby and Dwight is the defining element in their relationship and, indeed, in any discussion of the obstacles Toby faced in his childhood.

The battle between fathers and sons is central to many autobiographies of boys, including Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets, Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright's Black Boy, and John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers. Edmund White's autobiographical novel, A Boy's Own Story, also revolves around a son's conflict with his father. These works and This Boy's Life offer evidence to support the rather obvious—but important not to overlook—idea that conflict between a father and a son helps to create a desperate childhood for many boys. Certainly, Toby's sense of rejection by his own father and horrendous relationship with his step-father made his childhood miserable.


Yet if Dwight, Roy, and Toby's biological father as well as the cultural script of the all-American boy put Toby at great risk, his mother's unconditional love provides the constancy and support that he so desperately needs. As Geoffrey Wolff's work implies, Toby and Rosemary are very close from their earliest days. Throughout This Boy's Life, Toby's profound love for his mother is everywhere apparent. She, in turn, steadfastly supports and defends him.

When their Seattle roommates point out Toby's misdeeds and failings, Rosemary argues that it is just a phase he is going through. When Toby gets caught writing an obscenity on the school's bathroom wall, Rosemary refuses to accept Toby's guilt and bullies the principal into giving him no punishment. When Dwight criticizes Toby, Rosemary defends him.

Nowhere is the strength of the bond between mother and son more apparent than when Toby is offered a chance to move to Paris and live with his uncle. After having sent his uncle an embellished account of how tough their life is with Dwight in Chinook, Toby receives, by return mail, an invitation from his uncle to leave Dwight and Chinook behind. But as the terms of his uncle's offer unfold, Toby realizes that if he moves to Paris, he will not only have to leave his mother behind but also agree to be adopted by his aunt and uncle and become, legally, their son. Toby decides that this is too high a price to pay:

Whenever I was told to think about [going to Paris], my mind became a desert. By this time, I had no need of thought, because the answer was already there. I was my mother's son. I could not be anyone else's. When I was younger and having trouble learning to write, she sat me down at the kitchen table and covered my hand with hers and moved it through the alphabet for several nights running, and then through words and sentences until the motions assumed their own life, partly hers and partly mine. I could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me. Nor swim, nor sing. I could imagine leaving her. I knew I would, someday. But to call someone else my mother was impossible.

(142, emphasis mine)

Tobias Wolff realizes that, no matter what, he is his mother's son—and can be no one else's. She is part of everything he does and part of everything he writes. And Tobias Wolff is a writer. Examining the scene he chooses to use to explain their closeness, we see that she metaphorically, emotionally, and physically helps him become a writer. They join hands around a pen and write. If we project the implications of the passage to the present, we realize that indeed, she is, quite literally, part of what he has just written and we have just read. This is her text as well as his.

In “‘The Blank Page’ and The Issues of Female Creativity,” Susan Gubar has shown that there is a long tradition of literature that identifies “the author as a male who is primary and generative and the female as his passive creation—a secondary object lacking autonomy, endowed with often contradictory meaning but denied intentionality” (295). Gubar proffers a metaphor of a pen (representing the male penis) writing on a blank page (the virgin female). Gubar shows that such a paradigm is useful in the analysis of “The Blank Page” and other works, and I believe that it can be reworked to shed light on This Boy's Life.Toby's initial writing is controlled by Rosemary; the pen-penis is directed by her until the motions of the pen-penis “assumed their own life, partly hers and partly mine.” After Toby has mastered the physical act of writing, her influence is not solely limited to the initial task-specific neuro-muscular training that she has given him. Toby finds that he “could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me.” The use of the present tense “cannot” is significant. Even as Tobias writes his life story, Rosemary is with him. This is his story, but it is also their story.

Of course, their bond was not always healthy for Toby. At times, he is so close to his mother that he stops being a son and sees himself as her protector and a partner who becomes jealous when other men try to court her. When Toby and Rosemary leave Roy and Utah, Toby is glad because he will “have her to myself again.” When Rosemary begins to date Dwight, Toby acknowledges that he examined Dwight with “the eye of a competitor” and decides that he needn't worry about Dwight joining them because of his defects: “We hadn't come all the way out here to end up with him” (63).

In Refusing to Be a Man, John Stoltenberg argues that many fathers desire to win their sons back from their mothers, essentially to assert their paternal rite of domination over their children. Stoltenberg contends that one way that fathers win back their sons is by brutalizing the mother and thus showing the son his ultimate fate if he does not re-join the father's side. Because I want to spend some time examining Stoltenberg's argument in discussing Toby's relationship with his mother and his surrogate fathers, I will take the liberty of reproducing a long excerpt from one of Stoltenberg's essays:

The father's struggle to repossess the son will be played out in front of the boy's uncomprehending eyes and upon the bodies of both the boy and the mother. Of course, the father will be aided and abetted by schools, television, and other cultural accessories to the theft of sons from mothers. But the father figure in the flesh will succeed in dividing the boy's eroticism against the mother only by physical or emotional brutality. The boy will be a witness as the father abuses his wife—once or a hundred times, it only needs to happen once, and the boy will be filled with fear and helpless to intercede. Then the father will visit his anger upon the boy himself, uncontrollable rage, wrath that seems to come from nowhere, punishment out of proportion to any infraction of any rules the boy knew existed—once or a hundred times, it only needs to happen once, and the boy will wonder in agony why the mother did not prevent it. From that point onward, the boy's trust in the mother decays, and the son will belong to the father for the rest of his natural life.

The authority of the anger of the father is interpreted by the son as follows: (1) Not-mother hates Mother and Not-mother hates me; Not-mother hates us. (2) It is because I am like Mother that Not-mother hates me so. (3) I should be different from Mother; the more different I am from Mother, the safer I will be. These are the cardinal principles of logic in male maturation under father right. They are so simple, even a child can understand. They are backed up by the constant threat of the father's anger, so the child will remember them, and the child will never forget.

The son, in order to become as different from Mother as he can possibly be, now begins to rid his body of the eroticism of the mother. He withdraws from it. He purges it with aggression.


Stoltenberg's analysis of the impact of paternalism and a father's brutality towards his wife offers several useful insights to understanding Toby's behavior. First, it is clear that in Utah and in Washington, Toby lives in fear of offending his (surrogate) father. He understands the physical danger such behavior will create for him. Dwight hits him often. And Toby recognizes that when he is physically abusive, when he beats on Arthur or any other boy, he earns his father's respect and “something like love.” In short, he recognizes that the more he behaves in a way that his father deems acceptable, the less likely he is to be physically and verbally abused. Yet, ultimately Stoltenberg's paradigm does not satisfactorily explain Toby's behavior or This Boy's Life. Stoltenberg argues that after a son has witnessed the wrath of his father on his mother, “the boy's trust in his mother decays, and the son will belong to the father for the rest of his natural life.” While Toby's behavior parallels some of what Stoltenberg believes it should, Toby's trust in his mother never diminishes. Throughout This Boy's Life Toby's love for his mother is everywhere apparent. He refuses to go to Paris because he can only be his mother's son.

Stoltenberg's paradigm fails because it is, like much of his book, unbalanced. Too often, Stoltenberg sees all men as violent ogres whose deepest desire is to repopulate the world with miniature versions of their violent selves. Stoltenberg creates an absolutist world view that makes for interesting reading but ultimately an unbalanced argument. For example, Stoltenberg argues that “a fully realized male sexual identity also requires non-identification with that which is perceived to be nonmale, or female. His identity as a member of the sex class men absolutely depends on the extent to which he repudiates the values and interests of the sex class “women” (34). Stoltenberg argues that to be a man a male must repudiate “women's values” such as interest in domestic life, nurturing, and collaborating. Such reasoning depends on Stoltenberg's misguided belief that there are “women's values.” Moreover, there is no reason to believe that interest in domestic life or collaborative are “feminine” values.

Indeed, in places, Stoltenberg's paradigm turns into a diatribe against all men instead of the excesses of some. Unfortunately, an attack on all men is Stoltenberg's goal, and he acknowledges in the final essay of his book that the articulation of the radical feminism that he espouses “helped provide me with a form in which to express my anger at other men—an anger that in men can run very deep, as many of us know” (189). In essence, he uses his book, as too many men have used their fists, to attack those who are different from him. Nevertheless, some of his observations about father and son relationships hold true in examining the damaging relationships Toby has with Dwight and Roy. And because Stoltenberg's predictions that Toby will abandon his mother to avoid the wrath of a father proves false, Refusing to Be a Man further testifies to the strength of Toby's relationship with his mother.


In the next section of this chapter, I want to look closely at the narrative voice in a single scene from This Boy's Life. Looking closely at the voice will allow me not only to articulate what I admire about Wolff's achievement as a writer but also to discuss, in a different way, the emotions and forces that affected Toby's childhood. To discuss the narrative voice, I want to use again the method of analyzing prose that Richard Lanham developed in Analyzing Prose. As I explained in the preceding chapter, I will, as Lanham does, spread the words of sentences across a page, showing how clauses are related to each other and what the natural rhythm of a passage looks like. In the left margin, I note the number of words in each sentence.

In this scene, Toby recalls a night when his mother went out on a date with a man she met earlier that afternoon at the Seattle SeaFair. While Rosemary is out, Toby is alone and worries about his mother.

5          I slept badly that night
13          I always did when my mother went out,
                              which wasn't often these days.
4          She came back late.
15          I listened to her walk up the stairs
                              and down the hall to our room.
5          The door opened and closed.
17          She stood just inside for a moment,
                         then crossed the room and sat down on her bed.
4          She was crying softly.
3          “Mom?” I said.
12          When she didn't answer
                              I got up and went over to her.
3          “What's wrong, Mom?”
11          She looked at me,
                              tried to say something,
                              shook her head.
10          I sat beside her and put my arms around her
10          She was gasping
                              as if someone had held her underwater.
7          I rocked her and murmured to her.
27          I was practiced at this and happy doing it,
                              not because she was unhappy
                              but because she needed me,
               and to be needed made me feel capable.
4             Soothing her soothed me.


The sentence structure here is strikingly different from what Angelou uses in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Virtually all of Wolff's sentences are simple subject-verb sentences, the kind of sentences that Strunk and White would label “active sentences.” Each of the first seven sentences in the passage begins with the subject and is immediately (or almost immediately) followed by its verb. (I slept …, I always did …, She came back …, I listened …, The door opened …, She stood …, She was crying …) Sentences 8 through 10 don't follow this pattern, but then the next 6 sentences return to the subject verb pattern of the first seven sentences. This is what Lanham loosely labels as “masculine prose.” It is active and lean; there are few adjectives and even fewer descriptions.

The sentences' simplicity precludes them from explicating causal relationships. We are told Toby didn't sleep well on the nights his mother was out, but it is left to us to decide if this is cause and effect. We are told that the door opened and closed, but it is up to us to deduce who opened and shut it. Richard Lanham has argued that such style reveals a kind of nihilism, a world view where the speaker does not understand why things happen. Lanham dubs this Hemingway prose, because to him it sounds much like the prose Ernest Hemingway uses to describe the blasted world after the first world war. But certainly, too, this voice could be right for a child who cannot understand the whys of his world. Why is his mother crying? Why is their life so difficult? Why did his father leave him? These are “whys” Toby cannot answer, and the sentences Wolff uses to describe it reflect this reality here and in many places throughout This Boy's Life.

The length of sentences is also fundamentally different from that of many authors, particularly Maya Angelou. Wolff's sentences here are extremely short. In 16 sentences there are 131 words—an average of 8 words per sentence. This prose reports action but does not describe it. There are virtually no adjectives, noun phrases, adverbs. It is brief and matter of fact, the tight lipped prose of hard boiled detective stories, of Hemingway and Raymond Carver. And yet, the scene itself is very emotional. Toby is hugging his mother after she has been hurt. He hugs her, comforts her, rocks her. The only long sentence is the one in which he explains why he liked to hug his mother:

I was practiced at this and happy doing it,
                    not because she was unhappy
                    but because she needed me,
and to be needed made me feel capable.

The explanation is moving: she needed him and to be needed made him feel “capable.” The final sentence is the most poignant. “Soothing her soothed me.” The chiasmas gives a rhythmic, somnolent quality to the equally balanced halves of the sentence. It is almost like a cradle rocking back and forth. Soothing her (pause) soothed me.

Thus, while the prose takes on all the trappings of what Lanham has labeled “masculine prose” (lean, direct, factual), it reveals a very tender moment. In this sense the merging of style and content reveals the opposing desires—to be tender and tough—that whipsaw Tobias Wolff as he grows up. He wants his mother's love but he also wants to project toughness to impress the men who surround him.

The paragraphs that follow this passage remind us, however, that Toby is also just a boy and This Boy's Life is about a boy's childhood. After he has comforted his mother, Toby helps her into her bed and the two of them fall asleep holding hands. In the morning, they don't discuss the night before. But in the end, Toby can't help but ask questions. The man who took Rosemary to dinner had promised to buy Toby a bike, and Toby wants to know about that bike. (I will again present this section in Lanhamesque form. But it is significant to note that this passage in Lanham form looks only slightly different from how it looks in the published text.)

(9) In the morning we were shy with each other.
(9) I somehow managed not to ask her my questions.
(15) That night, I continued to master myself,
                                        but my self-mastery seemed like an act.
(10) I knew I was too weak to keep it up.
(4) My mother was reading.
(3) “Mom?” I said.
(3) She looked up.
(4) “What about the Raleigh?”
(8) She went back to her book without answering.
(5) I did not ask again.


He is a boy who loves his mother deeply, but he also wants the possession prized by most boys his age: a bike. This tension between what child psychologist Karl Rodgers would refer to as the real self and the ideal self is something Toby is constantly aware of. Much of his childhood seems to be the record of conflict between the boy he is and the idealized young man that he feels he should be, between being strong and independent or being “too weak to keep it up.”

This conflict, this tension between being the boy he is and being the mythical “all-American boy,” permeates all of This Boy's Life. Throughout the text we are constantly aware that Toby wants to be somebody else, wants to be the idealized all-American boy, the elegant stranger who goes to prep school and is a star swimmer and “A” student. Ultimately, at the end of Toby's childhood, he achieves some of this dream, in large part through the unconditional love of his mother. Yet long before he leaves for prep school, Toby turns to writing to develop a sanctuary where he can pretend to be the boy that he wants to be, the multi-talented athletic boy whose father loves him. It is this ability to write, to articulate his vision of the boy he wants to be and the world he wants to live in that, ironically, helps him escape from the boy he is.

When he is living in Utah, Toby writes long letters to an Arizona pen pal named Alice. He describes to her, as fact, the fantasy life he wants to be living. He tells her that he lives on his father's ranch, rides a palomino horse, has adventures with mountain lions and rattlesnakes, raises german shepherds, and plays for several athletic teams. His yearning to be competent, independent, and 100٪ male is everywhere apparent. He does not live in a split level house that his mother has decorated but rather on a ranch in the desert with only his father. He doesn't ride a bike; he rides a horse. He doesn't play with cats or other little boys; he has adventures with dangerous animals and poisonous snakes. He doesn't raise guppies or poodles; he raises german shepherds.

A few years later, when he lives in Seattle, Toby stops writing to Alice and takes up writing to Annette Funicello of the Mickey Mouse Club. His letters tell the same “story” about his skills and courage but the specifics have changed. Now, he lives with his father, “Cap'n Wolff,” who owns a fleet of fishing boats. As first mate, Toby is “a pretty fair hand at reeling in the big ones” and he takes the time to give Annette some detailed descriptions of his contests with the friskier fellows” (44). Again, through writing, Toby creates a world where he lives with his father on another frontier. He is competent and successful in the decidedly masculine world of seamen.

Toby next tries to create a better world for himself through writing the earlier mentioned letter to his uncle. Toby tries to convince his uncle and aunt to let him and his mother move in with them. He exaggerates their plight, plasters an envelope with stamps, and mails it off. In his concerned response, Toby's uncle offers to adopt Toby and let him live with their family in Paris, but Toby rejects the offer, for he feels he cannot leave his mother. His decision, as I've discussed above, is connected quite directly with the act of writing. In explaining his decision, Toby remembers how his mother taught him to write and sees their bond as one forged through writing:

I was my mother's son. I could not be anyone else's. When I was younger and having trouble learning to write, she sat me down at the kitchen table and covered my hand with hers and moved it through the alphabet for several nights running, and then through words and sentences until the motions assumed their own life, partly hers and partly mine. I could not, cannot, put pen to paper without having her with me.


Not many months after writing his uncle, Toby dramatically changes his life through his writing—by forging an application to an elite boarding school. After talking to his brother, Toby decides to try to follow in his footsteps and go to prep school. But when Toby receives applications from half a dozen of these schools, he realizes that he can't be admitted because he doesn't have the experiences, credentials, and qualities that they are looking for. He is not the all-American boy they want. Initially, he is stymied:

I was stumped. Whenever I looked at the forms I felt despair. Their whiteness seemed hostile and vast, Saharan. I had nothing to get me across. During the day, I composed high-flown circumlocutions, but at night, when it came to writing them down, I balked at their silliness. The forms stayed clean. When my mother pressed me to send them off, I transferred them to my locker at school and told her everything was taken care of. I did not trouble my teachers for praise they could not give me, or bother to have my collection of C's sent out. I was giving up—being realistic, as people liked to say, meaning the same thing.


In time, Toby changes his mind and decides to write an application that describes the boy he could be, should be, would be if he lived in different circumstances. He gets his old friend Arthur to pilfer school stationary, blank transcript forms, and a stack of official envelopes. In short order, he is able to cross the Saharan whiteness of the applications. Using his imagination, his writing skill, and his belief in his ultimate worth as a human being (if not in his actual achievements as a boy in a rotten situation), Toby writes into being the boy he wants to be:

Now the words came as easily as if someone were breathing them into my ear. I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth. That was what I thought I was writing—the truth. It was truth known only to me, but I believed in it more than I believed in the facts arrayed against it. I believed that in some sense not factually verifiable I was a straight-A student. In the same way, I believed that I was an Eagle Scout, and a powerful swimmer, and a boy of integrity. These were the ideas about myself that I had held on to for dear life. Now I gave them voice.


To Toby, what he writes is truth, the inner truth about who he is. All he is doing is giving this “truth” a voice. The passage above continues, and shows just how truthful Toby believes his writing to be:

I made no claims that seemed false to me. I did not say that I was a star quarterback or even a varsity football player, because even though I went out for football every year I never quickened to the lumpen spirit of the sport. The same was true of basketball. I couldn't feature myself sinking a last-second clincher from the key, as Elgin Baylor did for Seattle that year in the NCAA playoffs against San Francisco. Ditto school politics; the unending compulsion to test one's own popularity was baffling to me.

These were not ideas I had of myself, and I did not propose to urge them on anyone else. I declined to say I was a football star, but I did invent a swimming team for Concrete High. The coach wrote a fine letter for me, and so did my teachers and the principal. They didn't gush. They wrote plainly about a gifted, upright boy who had already in his own quiet way exhausted the resources of his school and community. They had done what they could for him. Now they hoped that others would carry on the good work.

I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.


In sum, Toby creates the boy he wants to be, could be in different circumstances. Of course, it is the all-American boy—one who plays sports, gets good grades, is upright and honest, terse and modest.

By writing these letters, Toby fundamentally changes his own life. In short order, he is admitted to The Hill School and takes on all the trappings of the “splendid phantom” he sees in the mirror of the haberdashery shop of the scene that began this chapter. Hill School is not the magic answer to Toby's problems; in fact, within the year, Toby get's kicked out of the school for drinking. Nevertheless, the move away from Dwight and Chinook puts Toby on to the right track that ultimately enables him to become a successful father, husband, and writer. How it is exactly that Toby survived Dwight and Roy's abuse, his own father's rejection, and Concrete High School is not wholly knowable. What is certain is that his mother's unconditional love and his own ability to write—to use language to create a forgiving world and ask for what he needed—helped him survive his childhood and go on to live and love well.


Tobias Wolff Short Fiction Analysis


Wolff, Tobias (Short Story Criticism)