Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite authors of short stories. Every time I read a collection of his work, it feels familiar, and I wonder if I’ve read it before, only to realize that it seems familiar because the people in the stories are so real. He doesn’t write on particular themes, though many of his stories are about memories and lies. He just chooses individuals, and moments in time, and examines them with a kind of rueful, ruthless love. Each story is both complete and incomplete, like a stone picked out of a running river.
Our Story Begins, a collection of both selected stories from his previous collections and several new stories as well, is both stone and river, showing the way Wolff’s work has progressed over the years. Some of the early stories, like “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” and “The Rich Brother,” have an almost allegorical feeling to them: this story is about something, there’s symbolism here. My own favorites of the ones I’d read before come from The Night in Question, stories like “Bullet in the Brain,” which traces a single memory in the mind of a man who has just been shot. First comes the list of what he didn’t remember:
Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, “Lord have mercy!” He did not remember deliberately crashing his father’s car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an antiwar rally, or waking himself up with laughter.
Then, what the bullet’s path did make him remember:
Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.
The story is brilliant. Perfect. Utterly simple, and completely beautiful.
Among the stories that were new to me, “Down to Bone,” the story of a man choosing his mother’s funeral home while she is still alive, stood out, along with “Nightingale” and “Deep Kiss,” both profoundly moving stories of men who are confused about what road they ultimately should choose in order to do the right thing. Wolff’s work has a cunning sense of humor, and I found myself laughing even when I thought it might be inappropriate to laugh. Like life. His stories are like life. They have the feel of a memory, or of something someone told us once. I lingered over them, and I recommend you do the same.