A Short Story Collection That Looks Deep Into Life’s Big Questions

Book review on Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. Published by Knopf.

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I think the Los Angeles Times got it right when the called Tobias Wolff  “a writer of the highest order: part storyteller, part philosopher, someone deeply engaged in asking hard questions that take a lifetime to resolve.” A big part of why I write is to try to make sense of those big questions. I do not expect to find clean answers, in fact I don’t expect to find any answer at all, but pondering these life questions through my characters’ thoughts and actions allows me freedom from circling the questions in my head. My characters’ allow the perfect balance of being distant from my mind but close to my heart that allows me to wonder what life is really all about. Therefore, I appreciate and admire authors that do the same.

To begin this book review, I will mention a note or two about each story I read in this collection and finish with a general overview. Although I enjoyed every line of this short story collection, I did not read it cover to cover. I am saving the rest of the 379-page book for another day.

Short Stories:

The Liar

In a first person narrative with that title, you know it’s going to be interesting! With such a title, Wolff is also making it very clear that you should be wary of the narrator’s reliability.

This story is a clear case of a character study. The story focuses solely on a teen boy who is a compulsive liar. Through quick and unique characterization, as well as stories shown to the reader first-hand, Wolff gives the reader a complete picture of this young man.

Soldier’s JoyImage

Another character study, Soldier’s Joy follows an old army sergeant who has found himself being pushed further and further down the ranks. The soldier’s lack of enthusiasm clashes with his desire to lead and the reader is forced to consider why he is adamant to stay on active duty when he could “retire to Mexico and live like a dictator.”

The Rich Brother

As one of my favorite short stories, The Rich Brother places two contrasting characters together in a tense situation. The brilliant dialogue and ironic humor make the story a very enjoyable read. The two brothers have very different outlooks on life and create a blur when it comes to choosing the more rewarding one.

Once Wolff pushes the two characters’ dialogue as far as it will go and still be fresh and interesting, he brings in a third character. The brothers’ reactions to this third man further emphasize their differences.  Any story with a well-written conman makes an interesting read; The Rich Brother has that and so much more.

Liviathan

The most interesting part about this story is the long narrative of one of the characters who is telling a story to a small group of friends. Typically such a story is paraphrased in fiction but Wolff puts the entire thing in dialogue. Carefully placed side comments from the friends and the characters’ actions break the narrative up in a way that doesn’t pull you away from the verbal story while reminding the reader of the context. All aspiring writers should read this story and pay close attention to how Wolff narrates that scene.

Desert Breakdown, 1968Image

Desert Breakdown takes a close look at how we react in impactful, tense moments. When a young family’s car breaks down at a sketchy gas station in the middle of nowhere, the family is faced with several important choices. At times their decisions are instinctive, other times we see them brood over the possibilities. An interesting, psychological read.

Say Yes

Besides The Rich Brother, this was my favorite story of the bunch! This flash fiction piece puts a married couple under the microscope when a tense discussion about interracial relationships arises while they wash dishes after dinner. The conversation itself was nothing unique but the way Wolff builds the tension in the scene is unmatched. By the end of the story, the reader is in the exact same position as the husband; in the dark with their heart pounding in anticipation.

I absolutely loved this story! I recently wrote a similar scene in my novel and plan to edit the piece in the attempt to mimic Say Yes.

Mortals

What would you do if you saw your own obituary in the paper one morning? Wolff explores this situation when a young writer gets trapped printing an unverified obituary. When the man whose obituary it was shows up at his office, the scene builds tension and mystery. Who would call in a very lively man’s obituary?

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Overview

Wolff has been one of my favorite writers for a few years now and reading a larger sampling of his short stories only reassured me of his brilliance. His ability to create round characters in single sentences, build tension in mundane situations and put the reader emotionally side-by-side with his characters are elements that cannot be overstated. Personally, I try to allow my characters to reveal themselves through their actions but Wolff states his characters tendencies, fears, secrets, lies, insecurities and more in brief sentences that explain a character to the deepest level. Although it can be argued that this trick is better suited for the short story, it cannot hurt to give your readers a quick, concise understanding of your characters in any piece of prose.

Wolff caught me off guard. His sections often ended with surprising information that seemed to come out of nowhere. When he did sneak in these surprising lines, he always left them at the end of a (often mundane) paragraph. Breaking to a new paragraph would have lowered the shock value of these lines because it would give the reader a moment to breath and new paragraphs often indicate a change of some kind.

Recommendation:

I recommend this book of short stories to everyone! Especially those who find their lives so busy that reading a novel seems like a year-long task. 5 stars without a doubt!

How I found this book: As I mentioned earlier, I have been a fan of Tobias Wolff for a few years. I see a lot of what I hope to become as a writer in his work and therefore cherish his books. Choosing this book of New and Selected Stories seemed like a much better option than buying multiple previous published short story collections.

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Posted on March 18, 2014, in Book Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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