Writers Can Turn Their Lives into Tales Worth the Telling

Article excerpt

MODERN AMERICAN MEMOIRS Edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley 446 pages, HarperCollins, $27.50

GOOD MEMOIRS make good stories, and this selection contains some truly wondrous stories. They're based on real experiences of real people, but the writers use the tools of fiction to flesh out the facts.

Maxine Hong Kingston, for instance, tells the story of her mother's ludicrous attempt to reunite Kingston's aunt, brought by the mother to the United States from China, with the husband who had left her 30 years earlier and who now has an American wife and children.

The story is told almost entirely in dialogue and Kingston herself is never present on the page. The conversations had to be reinvented, but the memories are real and add to the story a sense of wonder that such exotic events can truly take place.

Almost all of these memoirs are excerpted from longer works, but they easily stand on their own.

Geoffrey Wolff writes about his father, the "Duke of Deception," a lying, conniving mystery of a man whose "schemes were insane," according to his son, but who comes through, in the end, on his promises to his boy.

Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey's younger brother, presents his family memoir from a different point of view.

The Wolff parents had split up and Tobias had remained with his mother, while Geoffrey moved with his father. Tobias's memories are of his own schoolboy troubles, far separated from brother and father, but by the end of this excerpt one recognizes the influence of the Duke of Deception in the man euvers of his youngest son. …