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In which Netty discovers that while she likes Toby quite a bit, she likes his mate Ray a whole lot more …

November 17, 2010

Poor old Tobias Wolff.

He was always going to have his work cut out for him in Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2010, coming as he has on the heels on Raymond Carver, who we read at the beginning of the challenge, but whose prose has, and continues to, cast a very long shadow over all the subsequent choices – as fine as they have been. If I had read Wolff before Carver, I suspect my accolades would be far less muted. But pretty much it’s like this: if you’ve seen Michael Jordan play, you’re unlikely to ever watch lesser competitors – no matter how proficient, skilled or accomplished they are – with as much enthusiasm. Yes, that’s how good Carver is.

Enough then, about the maestro of the short story (for interested newbies to this blog, you can find our Carver entries in the February archive). And, yes, Wolff’s name usually appears in the same breath as Carver when discussing the late 20th century American literary tradition of “dirty realism” (along with, amongst others, Charles Bukowski; see our March archive) – even though Wolff is hardly a proponent of minimalism. Perhaps this is because although Wolff works primarily in the short-story arena, he has also published two volumes of memoirs and several novels – genres that demand a more fully realised style of writing.

While Wolff has spent most of his career in academia (including a lengthy stint at New York’s Syracuse University, where he served on the faculty with – yes – one Raymond Carver), he also did a tour of Vietnam with the US Army (as chronicled in his 1994 memoir In Pharoah’s Army). And both themes – academia and army life – turn up in short stories in Our Story Begins, the 2008 collection that is ANRC10’s introduction to Wolff’s work.

There are 31 entries in Our Story Begins, including 10 new stories; the older material covers the period from 1981-1996 and the stories are basically presented in chronological order. Interestingly, Wolff states in his introduction he did not hesitate to revise some of his stories where he felt necessary – something about which I have mixed feelings and which potentially raises a whole raft of questions about maintaining the original integrity of the work. Of course, without being familiar with the original versions, it is impossible to know how much tinkering has been done – presumably it is minimal, while Wolff himself is not.

Few of these short stories are “snapshots”, a la Carver. But for all Wolff’s fleshing out of characters and their histories, I found the lack of “resolution” often quite frustrating. As a reader I don’t necessarily demand a nice, neat, happy or otherwise ending, but I do object to a meandering, “unfinished” conclusion that just makes me feel like I have wasted my time wading through the preceding pages. In short, don’t make me care about your characters if you’re not going to either tell me what happens to them or leave me with a sense of their fate. While I respect that Wolff’s endings are generally very subtle, which mostly effectively demonstrates his deft touch as a writer, too often I would get to the end of a story and think, “Well, what was the point of that?” – crudely put, the reader equivalent of pounding away in the sack for an hour without getting the desired result. And no one, surely you agree, wants that …

Case in point: Desert Breakdown, 1968, which, interestingly, Andy professes to be one of his favourites in this collection. Young married couple Mark and a heavily pregnant Krystal, along with their toddler son Hans, are making the journey by car from Mark’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, to Los Angeles. Mark, a gifted mimic, has left the US army, following a tour of Europe and a stint in Germany, where he met his wife, a local, and has his heart set on a new career in the entertainment industry. Driving through the hot Californian desert and low on petrol, they are forced to stop at a petrol station – occupied by several rednecks – in the middle of nowhere to refuel. And then the car won’t restart.

At this point in the story, the foreboding has been notched up to about nine and a half. Mark is forced to set off on foot to hitch a lift to a nearby town for a new alternator, while Krystal and their son wait behind. So what happens? Mark flags down a lift in an old hearse with several hippies; he considers abandoning his family to join his new friends on a movie set in San Lucas, but changes his mind at the last minute. Finally making it to a parts store, Mark finds he does not have enough cash to purchase the alternator. Meanwhile, back in hicksville, Krystal, tired and overwhelmed by the heat, is negotiating her way in dealing with the rednecks. The reader is expecting the worst. But then – well, nothing, really. It all just sort of peters out. Does Mark make it back to his family? Probably. Does Krystal come to any real harm back at the station? Probably not. I had no idea, and at that stage, I no longer cared.

Contrast this with In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs. Mary, an academic of a certain age, has taken up a new residency at an Oregon college after her former university is declared bankrupt. Beset with several health issues, she is also increasingly worried about her security and relevance – then she receives a letter from a former colleague at a New York institution granting her an interview for a new position. She sets off with high hopes, but soon realises there are other motives at play behind the invitation. So after years of professionally “towing the party line”, Mary abruptly changes tack. The ending is unexpected, yet fulsome and wholly satisfying. Unlike Desert Breakdown, 1968, the story arc is complete, even if Mary’s fate is unresolved. And therein lies the difference. More of the same would have been greatly appreciated.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the majority of Wolff’s offerings here. There are some real gems in this collection – the sly, biting humour of Mortals was the standout for me, while his new stories show a progression in the depth and maturity of his writing. But at the end of the day, Wolff’s real “failing” – if you can term it thus – is that I read him after having first read Carver. To mangle a couple of sporting analogies, Wolff may be in the same ballpark as Carver, but he does not carry his shoes to the game.

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