The Menace of Living with Yourself Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories By Tobias Wolff Knopf. 379 pp. $26.95.
TOBIAS WOLFF has been publishing short stories since the late 1970s. Back then he was labeled a "dirty realist" - part of a group including Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Ann Beattie. They were realists in that they eschewed the sort of postmodern flights Donald Barthelme and John Barth popularized during the ' 60s. And their realism was "dirty" because their characters tended to live a few rungs beneath the class you would meet in the pages of such earlier realists as John Cheever or John Updike.
Three decades later another generation of experimentalists, led by David Foster Wallace and George Saunders, has made its way into the anthologies, followed by still more realists like Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li. Wolff now seems simply an elder statesman of traditional American short fiction.
Our Story Begins traces the arc of his career - with some airbrushing. It consists of 21 pieces from three previous collections, plus 10 new ones. Wolff's impulse toward self-correction is not surprising, given that he no longer lists among his published works a first novel, Ugly Rumours, that appeared in Britain in 1975. Moreover, Wolff admits in "A Note from the Author" that he has allowed himself "the liberty of revisiting . . . here and there." He considers this a "form of courtesy" to the reader: "If I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented?" Wolff thus presents himself as a man struggling with a younger self - the "I" who threatens to turn you away - and this is reflected in much of his fiction and nonfiction.
He has, for example, written two memoirs: In Pharaoh s Army (1994), about serving as a soldier in Vietnam (the setting as well for Ugly Rumours); and This Boy's Life, a chronicle of his growing up in the care of his mother and an abusive stepfather. (His brother, Geoffrey Wolff, a former "Writers & Writing" columnist for The New Leader, tells the parallel tale of being raised, separately, by their father in The Duke of Deception.) Many of Tobias' first-person stories are in a retrospective mode too. In tales about childhood, there are no child narrators; youthful follies are related across the gulf of time, through the lens of adulthood.
The process of reckoning with the past also connects several of the selections in Our Story Begins. The narrator of "Flyboys" recalls witnessing the deterioration of his friend Freddy's family life after the death of Freddy's elder brother. Freddy's mother's sorrow "opened up the view of a world I had only begun to sus- pect, where wounds did not heal, and things did not work out for the best." The story ends with the narra- tor excluding Freddy from a quixotic attempt to build an airplane with a third schoolboy - another unhealed wound.
A similar sense of regret animates "Smorgas- bord." The narra- tor, looking back at his boarding school days, de- scribes a home- town girlfriend, Jane, who has sent him a picture of herself: "[I was] unable to imagine her from it; I had to close my eyes to do that, and then I could see her, her solemn eyes and the heavy white breasts she would gravely let me hold sometimes, but not kiss. Not yet, anyway. I had a promise, though. That summer, as soon as I got home, we were going to become lovers."
Romantic temptations offer themselves rarely at all-boys schools. (Wolff forged an application to gain admittance to the Hill School and was eventually kicked out. His recent novel, Old School, draws on this experience.) In "Smorgasbord" an occasion for emotional treachery arrives when the narrator and a friend are taken out to dinner by the sultry Latina stepmother of a classmate, Garcia, "the nephew of a famous dictator." Linda, the narrator informs us, "wasn't a lot older than we were. ... I heard the silky rub of her stockings against each other, and breathed in a fresh breath of her perfume every time she moved. …