This Writer's Life: Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff
Contino, Paul J., Commonweal
I can't live without it." Tobias Wolff was talking to me about irony. He paused, his eyes scanning the book-lined walls of his Stanford University office, and repeated: "I can't live without it. But I do think it has its temptations, and one of them of course is to make flippant what is not to be taken flippantly."
Like any morally serious person, Wolff knows that irony has its risks: "Irony [can be] a way of not talking about the unspeakable," Wolff wrote in his introduction to Matters of Life and Death, an anthology of short stories he edited in 1983. "It can be used to deflect or even to deny what is difficult, painful, dangerous--that is, consequential." Yet, as the award-winning author of the memoirs This Boy's Life (1989; made into a film starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio) and In Pharaoh's Army (1994; an account of his tour of duty in Vietnam), three splendid short-story collections, and the 2003 novel, Old School, Wolff has never shied away from irony. As a Catholic, he recognizes the myriad ways that irony can unsettle our imagined autonomy, and sharpen an awareness that we need and are needed by others. Indeed, as the gospel narratives demonstrate, the Christian faith itself is made vital by an ironic story: the savior comes as a helpless infant, dies as an executed slave, and rises in glory on the third day. It is this kind of rich irony that Wolff's writing suggests: the stories we tell, the narratives of our lives, are upended to make room for what we call God's story.
Irony is also a word that could describe Wolff's relationship with Catholicism. As a ten-year-old in Salt Lake City, he was sent by his Irish-American mother to catechism classes--"a wonderful experience," he calls it. But after his family moved to Washington State, they stopped going to Mass, mainly because there were no churches near their home in a remote village of the Cascade Mountains. Wolff's Catholicism went largely neglected throughout his four years of voluntary service with the Army, his last in Vietnam in 1968. Next, with the help of tutors, he prepared for the entrance exam to Oxford University, and was accepted. There "some friends of mine were starting to become more interested in [religion]. I started looking around a bit and found myself drawn very much to the Newman Center at Oxford, started going to Mass there, and then I took instruction from a priest there and was confirmed. It was my last year at Oxford."
It was not a naive conversion, and Wolff is candid about the difficulties he's encountered as a Catholic. Back in the United States, and for "about a year," he and his wife Catherine were involved and finally disillusioned with a charismatic renewal group. "We left it and again found some sanity in the church's traditions. They were some consolation, I have to say. But some of those traditions are a problem for me [when they lead to] the abuse of authority and the idea that the church as an institution is somehow more important than its members as a body of the faithful." Wolff offered the example of his brother-in-law, the late distinguished theologian William C. Spohn, who was a Jesuit for thirty-two years until he left the priesthood and, later, married. "To think that a church could be allowed to go without a minister before they would allow someone like Bill [to minister], because he was married ... It is a loss."
Another complicating factor for Wolff's faith is the tragic history of the church's relations with Judaism. Wolff, whose father was Jewish, is saddened and angered by the church's history of anti-Semitism. "That my church would not have lifted a finger to help me or my family in Europe," he says, his words trailing off. He discerns in the church "a kind of evasiveness about the subject," an unwillingness to engage in much-needed "honest sorting out," a "reflective defensiveness" on the subject.
These difficulties with the church are anything but minor, and can even be occasions of doubt about one's faith, a theme Wolff has explored. …