More Masterful Stories from Tobias Wolff

Article excerpt

Byline: John Greenya, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's been over a decade since Tobias Wolff brought out a collection of short stories, but based on the evidence at hand it was well worth the wait. An acknowledged master of the form, Mr. Wolff has also written two very well-received memoirs, "This Boy's Life" and "In Pharaoh's Army," as well as a novella (but never a novel). "Our Story Begins," - nice title, eh? - is a collection of 21 "selected" stories and 10 new ones, which not only serves as a kind of Portable Wolff but also makes it easy to compare the new with the old. While died-in-the-Wolff fans may find they prefer such earlier well-known stories as "In The Garden of the North American Martyrs," "Soldier's Joy," or "The Night in Question," they'll still find much to enjoy in the new offerings.

As usual with Mr. Wolff, if the readers want to understand and enjoy these stories, they'll have to keep up their end of what the author has always considered a fair bargain: "The reader really has to step up to the plate and read a short story," Mr. Wolff wrote years ago, by which he meant that working through the difficulty of the short story is in fact its own reward. As for the writer, his or her thrill comes from "working a miracle, making life where there was none" in the space of just a few pages. "There's a joy in writing short stories,'' he says, "a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off." I won't go so far as to call Tobias Wolff a miracle worker, but I will vouch for the presence of any number of rewards.

A warning: The earlier stories may not be exactly the same as they were when they first saw the light of print. While some purists may howl at so much as a change in punctuation, Tobias Wolff eschews such a foolish consistency: "The truth is that I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts. To the extent that they are still alive

to me I take a continuing interest in giving that life its best expression. This satisfies a certain aesthetic restlessness, but I also consider it a form of courtesy. 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? Where I have felt the need for something better I have answered the need as best I can, for now." So be it.

In the first half dozen or so stories, the reader's job is to understand that what you see is not at all what you get, and when someone seems intent on helping someone else - as in "Hunters in The Snow" or "The Liars" - it is really themselves they want to save, consciously or otherwise. In the very powerful "Soldier's Joy," written in 1996, and first printed in the collection "Back in the World," by which Vietnam vets, like Wolff, meant home in America with all of the attendant, now familiar-sounding difficulties, three soldiers try to readjust.

In "The Rich Brother," we meet the highly-successful older brother Pete, and his sappy sibling Donald who can't seem to do or get anything right. Pete is continually rescuing Donald, propping him up, keeping him from falling through the cracks. …