At his best, Wolff is a nuanced chronicler of small defeats and blemished self-awareness. In "Two Boys and a Girl," the author turns the story of a man and his best friend's girlfriend into a tragedy of inevitability: "He was about to betray his best friend," Wolff writes of his protagonist, Gilbert. That was why this whole thing was tragic, because he knew what he was doing and could not do otherwise. But these gifts for the psychological are too often hindered by Wolff's deficiencies in the realm of narrative, deficiencies that can lead to maddening gaps in logic.
His story "Hunters in the Snow," for example, about three friends airing old grievances while hunting in the woods outside Spokane, Wash. After placing their newly wounded friend in the bed of their truck, the other two hunters, Tub and Frank, calmly drive down the highway discussing the delicacies of their own deteriorating relationship. They stop not once but twice on the way to the hospital, at one point even settling into a roadside restaurant for a long meal.
Meanwhile, their friend lies dying in the cold. When they find him trying to pull himself desperately over the tailgate of the truck in an attempt to find help or shelter, all they can think to say is, "It wouldn't hurt so much if you just stayed put. These slips in logic and motivation might make sense in a novel, where they can be forgiven as strands in a larger tapestry, but in a short story, emotional and psychological truths drawn from contrived premises can't be trusted, no matter how much depth they appear to have, no matter what they seem to say about us. Wolff clearly knows his way around a typewriter and the disenchanted human mind, but this collection is conspicuously short on honest narrative revelation.
If the goal of the short story is to shine light into some small, previously unlit passage of human experience and see it for what it is — life in miniature — then Wolff's world is still consumed by too much darkness: Subtle and articulate, his stories are also far from resplendent. Got opinions about food, arts, shopping, and everything else good in Austin? Let your voice be heard in our annual Best of Austin ballot.
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Tell Us Where You Are:. Preview Your Review. Thank you. Your review has been submitted and will appear here shortly. Extra Content. Read from the Book Bullet in the BrainAnders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.
He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions. Anders saw that her friend was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, the other customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank.
Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door.
One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard's neck. The guard's eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes. The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard's wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades, then took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter.
Review: Our Story Begins: Selected and New Stories by Tobias Wolff
He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a plastic bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, "Whose slot is that? She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she'd been talked to. He nodded. Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?
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He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red rimmed. The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol. Up there. Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and gilt scrollwork over the tellers' cages.
The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again—a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns.
The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders's eye was Zeus and Europa—portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droppy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. You think I'm some kind of clown? He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche—oh, God, capiche," and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right through the head.
The bullet smashed Anders's skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions.
Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and lost since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared with the synaptic lightning that flashed around it.
Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of time to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him—her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr.
Mole, as in Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play. Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth.
Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories by Tobias Wolff
He did not remember standing just outside his daughter's door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so he could give himself the shivers at will—not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien," or "My God, I heard this day," or "All my pretty ones?
- Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins..
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- MORE BY TOBIAS WOLFF!
- Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain (Oxford Historical Monographs).
- The Spear of Destiny (Doctor Who: 50th Anniversary, Third Doctor).
- What Is a Gas? (First Step Nonfiction);
Did you say all? O hell-kite!
Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories
Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, "I should have stabbed him in his sleep. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the dust jacket of a novel not long after they graduted, or the respect he had felt after reading the book.