Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (2008) 379 p.
Tobias Wolff, a writer more known for his short stories than novels, has been floating around on my to-read list ever since I read his short story “Bullet in the Brain” back in my first or second year of university. It’s funny how when it comes to reading I can mentally file something like that away and then not get around to doing it for seven years. Anyway, Our Story Begins is a collection of both old and new stories from across Wolff’s career.
What I liked about “Bullet in the Brain” – which can be read online here – is that it begins as a light-hearted jokey sort of story, with a book critic wearily sighing at the cliched demands of real-life bank robbers, and then – as he gets shot – suddenly turns into a serious and moving story, as his life flashes before his eyes and he remembers the joys of his younger years. Wolff has a talent for mixing the banal and the profound, the humourous and the terribly sad.
I mentioned in my review of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? that I prefer short stories which are either plot-driven, or which have beautiful language. Wolff examines quotidian suburban life as much as Carver does, but writes in a way that’s actually interesting and poetic.
At the end we see the explorers sleeping in a meadow filled with white flowers. The blossoms are wet with dew and stick to their bodies, petals of columbine, clematis, blazing star, baby’s breath, larkspur, iris, rue – covering them completely, turning them white so you cannot tell one from another, man from woman, woman from man. The sun comes up. They stand and raise their arms, like white trees in a land where no one has ever been.
Now, certainly there are no stories in here quite as good as “Bullet in the Brain,” but that’s his most famous one for good reason. Stand-outs in the collection include “Hunters in the Snow,” about a chubby hunter bullied by his friends, “The Rich Brother,” about a wealthy man who rescues his aimless brother from a cult group, “A White Bible,” about the father of a disgraced schoolboy who abducts and threatens his teacher, “Her Dog,” about a widow taking his dead wife’s dog for a walk, and “Nightingale,” about a father driving his son to begin boarding at a military school.
Our Story Begins is an excellent anthology from one of America’s finest living short fiction writers. I typically just read short story collections to study the craft, and for something to read alongside longer novels, but this was a book I enjoyed for itself as well.