Tobias Wolff 1945–-
(Full name Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff) American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, editor, and journalist.
The following entry provides criticism on Wolff's short fiction career from 1982 to 2001. See also Tobias Wolff Literary Criticism.
Wolff has been a preeminent force on the American literary landscape since receiving the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novella The Barracks Thief in 1985. He has since earned additional acclaim for his short fiction and memoirs. Often compared to Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, Wolff writes stark, ambivalent portrayals of contemporary existence that are often humorous and piercing exposés of hypocrisy. His prose, understated and lyrical, serves to illuminate critical points in the lives of his characters, generally failures or discontented individuals who find themselves at a moral crossroads. Despite occasional criticism for plot gimmicks or using a tone irreverent to his subject-matter, Wolff is generally recognized as a skilled storyteller whose narratives candidly portray the human quest to establish order or purpose in life.
Born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Rosemary Loftus Wolff, a secretary and waitress, and Arthur Saunders Wolff, an aeronautical engineer, Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff grew up in Chinook, Washington (outside of Seattle) with his brother Geoffrey Wolff, also a writer. Tobias's experiences with his mother and abusive step-father made his a troubled childhood; his unhappiness and feelings of powerlessness led him to lying and petty thievery as a means for rebellion. After being expelled from an esteemed preparatory school as a teenager, Wolff enlisted in the Army and served for four years (1964-1968) in Vietnam as a lieutenant with the Special Forces. Upon his return 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. In addition to writing, Wolff has served as a reporter for the Washington Post and has held academic posts at Goddard College, Arizona State University, Temple University, and Syracuse University. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at Stanford. He and his wife Catherine split their time between Northern California and upstate New York. They have three children.
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), Wolff's highly praised first collection of short fiction, contains twelve stories that focus upon lonely characters facing the consequences of past decisions. In the title story, an overly obsequious university teacher is interviewed for a position at a prestigious college in the East. When she discovers that she was never under serious consideration for the opening, she 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 those of most people, and 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 increasingly isolated from each other. Critics commended these stories for the wealth of metaphorical meaning beneath simple, natural language.
Wolff's novella The Barracks Thief concerns three American paratroopers stationed in North Carolina during the Vietnam War; they bond together through a shared temptation to allow an approaching forest fire to consume the ammunition dump that they are guarding. Told retrospectively by a soldier named Bishop, The Barracks Thief explores the question of whether it is better to die young and tragically or to live a long, but dull, conventional life.
Back in the World (1985), Wolff's second collection of short fiction, takes its title from the hopes of American Vietnam War veterans for clarity and purpose after their tour of duty. Other stories include “Coming Attractions,” featuring a lonely fifteen-year-old girl who makes phone calls that reveal her lack of close relationships, even among her family. “The Missing Person” is a comical story concerning Father Leo, whose failures include his latest assignment at a parish that has little use for his spiritual guidance. In general, Wolff's stories include a character whose circumstances lead him or her to dissembling as a way of creating a new self or revealing hidden truths.
Wolff's The Night in Question (1996) collects fifteen short stories in which the characters search for the essence of life that lies hidden beneath quotidian surfaces. In “Chain,” a man seeking revenge after a dog attacks his daughter gratefully accepts a friend's offer to kill the animal, the first in a series of reprisals that ultimately results in tragedy. “The Other Miller” is about a boy whose plan to punish his mother by joining the army proves futile. “Mortals” tells of a man who, eager to know what his friends say about him, sends his own obituary to the local newspaper. Other stories feature 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 a sermon her brother insists on reciting. Salvation is hard to come by for these characters, all of whom lack self-awareness. Their self-deceptions are not only humorous, but also morally tenuous, laying the groundwork for a collection of stories that read like parables and are often as edifying as they are ironic.
Wolff has received a great deal of critical acclaim for his precise, evocative language as well as his insight into the lives of a diverse range of characters. Wolff often addresses the complexity of human experience in his work, considering related themes prismatically. Moral choices and familial connections are the primary concerns of his oeuvre, which many interpret as an inquiry into the conditions necessary for the establishment of positive identity or self-esteem. Wolff's prose style is direct and his vocabulary consistently accessible. Some have called his stories gimmicky, others have faulted him for failing to resolve his plots, but even Wolff's worst critics seem impressed by the depth, power, and candor of his narrative voice.