The wicked, yearning heart

In spite of all the top-rate university programs, the hundreds of literary quarterlies and a reading public—unlike in Europe—which still has an appetite for short fiction, it remains hard in America to find a short-story writer who has something to say, and says it well.

Tobias Wolff is the exception. For the past 30 years, he has been publishing stories that feel yanked from the jagged mouth of real experience and turned into art. He writes gracefully of soldiers, lovers, dogs and families. He knows a thing or two about California. Enter his world, and you’ll be told a story in the old-fashioned way: Something happens; something is at stake. Finish one story, and you’ll need to pause before reading the next.

At this rate, there’s at least two months worth of reading pleasure in Our Story Begins, Wolff’s latest book, a new and selected volume of stories. And even if you have been following Wolff all along, this book is worth bringing home and reading.

It’s hard not to marvel at how natural Wolff makes storytelling seem. He is no fancy dancer; you will find no prose high jinks here. He writes short, easygoing sentences and is funny without showing off. He lets his characters talking do the trick. And yet, when the pathos descends on the page, it falls like a hammer.

One of the best stories in the collection is “The Other Miller,” in which the army mistakenly tells a soldier his mother has died. Driving back to civilian life, Miller, who knows it’s an error, can barely contain his glee. Not only is his mother alive, but he gets a break. Gradually, though, the karmic wrongness of his celebration hits him. And then Wolff reveals the real reason—the nasty, sadder one—for why Miller is celebrating.

One after the other, the tales in Our Story Begins perform this shattering turnabout: The entire moral crux of a life pivots on (or falls apart in) an instant. “Bullet in the Brain” is another such tale. A snide and sarcastic book critic enters a bank on the day it is robbed and proceeds to critique the gunman’s lingo. Not surprisingly, he winds up dead on the floor. But what is shocking is how much drama Wolff extracts from the flickering final moments of the angry man’s mind.

It’s very hard to describe what makes Wolff such a special short-story writer because, looking at Our Story Begins, it’s clear he has done just about everything. He has told gripping stories in the first person and in the third. Some of his tales do loop de loops. Other ones are swift as bullets. All of them, however, feel true. It feels funny to say that, especially in this age of “truthiness.” So perhaps it’s better to say this: These stories remind us how powerful and important good stories are, especially ones which look right into our wicked, yearning hearts and refuse to blink.