Tobias Wolff 1945-
(Full name Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff) American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Wolff's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 64.
Wolff has been a preeminent force on the American literary landscape since receiving the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novella The Barracks Thief (1984). Often compared to Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, Wolff's prose offers stark, ambivalent portrayals of contemporary existence that often function as humorous exposés of social hypocrisy. In his short fiction, Wolff constructs narratives around critical events in the lives of his characters, generally failures or discontented individuals who find themselves at a moral crossroads. Wolff expanded this technique in his memoirs, This Boy's Life (1989) and In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994), using his childhood and military experiences to demonstrate how seemingly traumatic events can have a lasting effect on one's development as a human being.
Born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, Wolff has an older brother, Geoffrey, who also became a writer. His parents, Rosemary and Arthur, divorced when he was ten years old. Geoffrey chose to remain with his father, while Wolff moved with his mother to Chinook, Washington, outside of Seattle, where she married a house-painter named Dwight. An abusive and violent stepfather, Dwight became a major figure in Wolff's first memoir This Boy's Life. In rebellion to Dwight's strict household rules, Wolff began lying and committing acts of petty thievery as a teenager. During high school, he was awarded a scholarship to the Hill School, a noted boarding school, but was later expelled. Wolff enlisted in the Army and served from 1964 to 1968 during the Vietnam War as a lieutenant with the Special Forces. Upon his return from Vietnam, Wolff was accepted into Oxford University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1972 and an M.A. in 1975. He also earned an M.A. from Stanford in 1978. Wolff has worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and held academic posts at Goddard College, Arizona State University, Temple University, and Syracuse University. He has also taught literature and creative writing at Stanford University. In addition to his PEN/Faulkner Award for The Barracks Thief, Wolff was nominated for the 1994 National Book Award for This Boy's Life and was awarded England's Esquire-Volvo-Waterstone's Prize for nonfiction.
Ugly Rumours (1975), Wolff's only novel, describes the experiences of two American soldiers, Woermer and Grubbs, as they graduate from the Army's officer-training program and are shipped off to the Vietnam War. The collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981) features twelve stories that focus upon lonely characters facing the consequences of past decisions. In the title story, an overly obsequious university professor is interviewed for a position at a prestigious college in the East. When it is revealed that she was never seriously considered for the opening, the professor speaks out eloquently and controversially for the first time in her career. In “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke,” a man discovers how far removed his values are from the rest of society when he realizes that he is unable to positively affect the lives of others through his work in academia. “Face to Face” depicts the failure of a romantic weekend vacation for a couple who have become increasingly isolated from each other. The Barracks Thief concerns three American paratroopers stationed in North Carolina during the Vietnam War. The soldiers bond through their shared temptation to allow an approaching forest fire to consume the ammunition dump they are guarding. Told retrospectively by a soldier named Bishop, the novella explores the question of whether it is better to live a short and tragic life rather than suffering through a long and meaningless existence. A majority of the stories in Back in the World (1985), Wolff's second collection of short fiction, follow American Vietnam War veterans as they search for clarity and purpose after their tours of duty. The other stories in the volume include “Coming Attractions”—in which a lonely fifteen-year-old girl makes phone calls that reveal her lack of close relationships—and “The Missing Person”—in which a priest named Father Leo discovers that his parish seems to have little use for his spiritual guidance.
This Boy's Life recounts the details of Wolff's life from age ten, when he and his mother traveled from Florida to Utah, through age eighteen, when he enlisted in the Army. The memoir offers a humorous and affectionate portrayal of Wolff's often difficult childhood experiences, such as his attempts at forming a relationship with Dwight, his abusive and domineering stepfather. One of the major recurring themes throughout This Boy's Life involves the difficulty young men face as they struggle to establish their masculine identities. This Boy's Life is often compared to The Duke of Deception, the acclaimed adolescent memoir of Wolff's brother, Geoffrey. In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, a continuation of Wolff's memoirs, describes the one-year tour of duty Wolff spent in the Mekong Delta village of My Tho, Vietnam. Divided into thirteen “episodes,” In Pharaoh's Army focuses primarily on Wolff's internal development rather than his experiences in military battles. Although Wolff never specifically addresses the atrocity and carnage he witnessed in Vietnam, he does make several allusions to the violence of warfare in his almost mundane stories of life in the Army. Wolff portrays himself as an immature young man in the beginning of the memoir, asserting that his experiences in Vietnam allowed him to grow and find direction in life. The Night in Question (1996) collects fifteen short stories that follow characters searching for the hidden meanings behind their day-to-day lives. In “The Chain,” a man seeking revenge after a dog attacks his daughter gratefully accepts a friend's offer to kill the animal. “The Other Miller” describes a boy whose plan to punish his mother by joining the Army proves futile. “Mortals” centers around a man who, eager to know what his friends say about him, sends his own obituary to the local newspaper. The other stories variously follow a book critic who is shot and killed while standing in line at the bank, a young woman who visits her father after his nervous breakdown, and a devoted sister struggling with her brother's obsession with endlessly reciting a biblical sermon. In addition to his own short fiction, Wolff has edited several short story collections, including The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories (1993), The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (1994), Best New American Voices 2000 (2000), and Writers Harvest 3 (2000).
Although Ugly Rumours has received largely unfavorable reviews since its original publication, Wolff's subsequent works have garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. Reviewers have praised his inclusion of idiosyncratic, naturalistic details as well as his insight into the lives of a diverse range of characters. Many critics have commended the stories in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs for the wealth of metaphorical meaning behind Wolff's simple and natural language. Richard Orodenker and Welch D. Everman have noted that, “[Wolff's] stories' complex levels of meaning are covered by a delicate veneer. His metaphors reach deep into the imagination.” His award-winning The Barracks Thief has been lauded for its realism and tolerance, particularly Wolff's refusal to moralize or pass judgment on his characters. However, some reviewers have faulted Wolff's short fiction as gimmicky and have argued that he often neglects to resolve his overly-complex plots. Although his fiction has occasionally received mixed reviews, Wolff's memoirs have attracted almost universal acclaim. This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army have been consistently praised for their humor, insight, and emotional depth, with critics commending Wolff's ability to affectionately portray the hardships of youth. Jeff Danziger has stated that, “Few authors have reported their early years, wasted, halcyon, or otherwise, with the same suspense, longing, loathing, and glorious humor. The writing [in This Boy's Life] is clear and merciless, and the chapters are as fluid and perfect as anything I've read in years.”