The Menace of Living with Yourself

By Lorentzen, Christian | The New Leader (Online), March/April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Menace of Living with Yourself


Lorentzen, Christian, The New Leader (Online)


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Menace of Living with Yourself
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.