Hungry Like The Wolff

During the sweltering summer of 2009, I first came across the writing of Tobias Wolff. A friend had given me a battered copy of the 2008 edition of The Best American Short Stories. In the book was a short story entitled, “Bible,” a lengthy piece that focuses on Maureen Casey, a teacher, and an angry parent who threatens and half-kidnaps her. Written in the third-person limited point of view, I admired through this perspective Wolff’s acute capturing of psychological realism and then the heady manner in which the narrative played out. The story became a mediation on religion, parenting, loss, and redemption.

After finishing the story, I became ravenous for more of Wolff’s fiction, and I decided to find out more about him. In my research, I discovered, along with Raymond Carver, Wolff had emerged from the “Dirty Realism” strand of American literature. He had authored eleven books, including, the novel The Barracks Thief (1984), and the memoir, This Boy’s Life (1989), which was later made into a film with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. He was educated at Oxford and Stanford (the latter, he later won a prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship), and Wolff had remained within academia ever since. During the 1990s, he taught at Syracuse and since then back at Stanford.

Two years later, and it was summer again. This time not so hot. In preparation for his visit to Virginia Tech, I read Wolff’s short pieces, “Powder” and “Say Yes.” The stories are brief; perhaps paragons of the short-short form, using an economy of language and imagery to maximum effect. Utilizing only a couple of characters for each piece, Wolff was able to convey a story beyond the simple vignette, to a plot-driven narrative that garnered a certain degree of absolution, but also mystery of what would happen next.

The night of the reading, Wolff strolled to the lectern wearing dark dress pants and a light pink shirt. He was an easily recognizable figure with his bald pate, tanned face, and well-groomed grey mustache. In front of the assembled two hundred students and faculty, he had a confident manner and easygoing stance. Before he read from his books, he told the crowd an extended anecdote on his writerly influences. “Yes, there were Jack London and Ernest Hemingway,” he said, “but before that was a series of children’s books about collie dogs.” He riffed on these early memories for several minutes before aptly segueing into his short story, “Her Dog” (published in the 2008 short story collection, Our Story Begins). The story was a brief, but fascinating surreal narrative of a man conversing with his dead wife’s dog. Although I found the story to be poignant and attenuated to the fine craft of the short story, I preferred the engaging excerpt from his 2003 novel, Old School.

In the second half of the reading, the novel excerpt he read centered on a young prep school student entering a writing competition to see who would meet the famous visiting writer. Through a well-realized setting, and through the humor and pathos of the situation, I felt myself transported to that school—where I became another one of the boys. Afterward in the brief Q&A session, Wolff mentioned this school was modeled on the one he had attended and had later been expelled from. Although he had never been a winning boy he once met a tipsy William Golding in the headmaster’s office, after being sent there for some minor offense. This anecdote encapsulated the tone of the evening—one replete with a fine attention to detail and the ability to tell a story that encompassed many associative abstractions: humor, sadness, joy, and despair. The night marked a fruition of the writer come full-circle. He became a teacher, an inspiration to others, including myself, in the room, perhaps leaving us with a sense that if we all tried long and hard enough, we could be writers, too.

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