Howling Wolff

A New Collection Of Short Stories Brilliantly Hints At The Big Picture.
By Piers Marchant

The Night In Question, by Tobias Wolff (Knopf).
Hardcover, $23.

READING A NARRATIVE voice, I tell my students, is like being approached in a bar. Sometimes you get put off by someone's smell or self-obsesssion, sometimes you get sucked in by the suggestion of what they're hinting at; often, I suppose, you pay attention as long as seems polite and turn back to whatever else you were doing. Luckily, certain of these strangers are completely entrancing. In his storytelling, Tobias Wolff has always had that ability to hook you. Two sentences into a story from his new collection, The Night In Question, and you're sunk like a pebble in quicksand.

These are stories culled from the last decade, but they fit together remarkably well. The collection is 15 stories long, and only 200 pages; some of these are tiny snippets, some more protracted; but in many, there is a sense the actual story--that is, the dramatic moment--has yet to happen. Instead, Wolff delicately lays down the groundwork and tracks the lead-in to the more obviously devastating events. It is a post-modern conceit, to be sure, one frequently found in much of the work of the late 20th century, but Wolff takes this idea one step further: The narrators speculate about this imminent future (or past) event, describe it and the outcome as they believe it to be true. The effect is that of a ghost story, forcing you to suspend your belief in the concrete structure of the story itself. It is an eerily haunting device.

In "Casualty," B.D., a nervous soldier in Vietnam, worries about a friend who can't keep from wise-assing their lieutenant. He volunteers for night patrols even though he only has a few weeks left in the jungle. In the end, after the friend is shot, the story suddenly shifts perspective from B.D. to the nurse in the chopper flying him to a hospital, daydreaming about the peaceful ocean cruise she plans on taking after the war is over. The shift masterfully enhances the lonely absorption of the characters' plight; people lost and dying, affecting others for the rest of their lives, even after brief contact.

Shifts in point of view drape these stories in irony, soaking them through with a sense of misplacement and uncommunicated needs left unfulfilled. "Flyboys," a story about two grade-school friends who have willfully lost touch with each other, suggests pain and suffering that the narrator himself can't accurately articulate. His description of his friend's mother, whose son had been killed in a motorcycle crash, hints at a grief he cannot comprehend. "I had never seen such sorrow; it appalled me. And I was even more appalled by her attempts to overcome it, because they so plainly, pathetically failed and in failing opened up the view of a world I had only begun to suspect, where wounds did not heal and things did not work out for the best."

The Night In Question is filled with beautiful, shimmering moments of such clarity. Wolff has a talent for choosing just the sensory detail to summon or suggest a frame of mind or mood, as in this precise description of sound from "Firelight": "The logs settled in the fireplace, very softly, like some old sleeping dog adjusting his bones."

His stories are slight in scope, but assiduously powerful; carefully etched reliefs of peoples' failures and desperations. Things are hinted at, described to the minutest detail while the larger picture almost always remains unstated--always lurking at the corner of some sort of imminent drama, pain or flight. Wolff captures the before moments, the minutae of things we remember noticing before the moment that everything goes to hell. The calm dread, rather than the storm. TW

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