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Richard Eder

Back in the World by Tobias Wolff (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95; 221 pp.)

November 17, 1985|RICHARD EDER

The land of disquiet explored by a segment of American fiction is prosperous, druggy and largely devoted to games. A lot of work gets done, or it couldn't be paid for. But you don't see the work; it isn't really part of life except as an off-stage drain on the spirits.

The games that the inhabitants consider their real life are played in a state of crowded anxiousness. They offer an illusion of companionship, but they are essentially solitary. Everyone brings his or her own board; the other players can be painlessly evicted and sent away.

Tobias Wolff, like other masters of the territory such as Ann Beattie and Frederick Barthelme, writes of the pain inside the painlessness. In the depleted atmosphere, every scream is silent. Each of Wolff's stories is an amplifier picking up the sound that cannot get through.

Like an ophthalmological surgeon with huge hands, Wolff presents the paradox of a big energy applied to microscopic artisanry. The stories in "Back in the World" fairly prance with a natural storyteller's repressed high spirits. The best of them are feverish and dramatic; there is a hint that the protagonist is getting ready to bust out of the stillness, that a week or two after the story ends, pity and terror and, who knows, even laughter will replace disquiet. Perhaps Wolff himself will move on.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 24, 1985 Home Edition Book Review Page 9 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
The photo accompanying Richard Eder's review of Tobias Wolff's "Back in the World" on Page 3 of the Nov. 17 Book Review (detail above) is from "Times Square: 45 Years of Photography by Lou Stoumen" (Aperture).

Meanwhile, he writes with a lavish display of skill. His achievement is not any special originality of situation, character or point of view, but an impressive elaboration of models we already know. It can verge upon gilding the lily.

Certainly the first story in the collection, "Coming Attractions," is a compelling variation on the theme of the lonely adolescent. Kathy works nights in a movie theater, cleaning up after the last show. She wanders about the empty house, picking up remnants of human habitation: a dropped sweater, a half-chewed ham-bone. Watch that ham-bone; it is enticingly excessive and out of place.

Because everything else fits almost too well. Waiting for her boss to give her a ride home, Kathy calls her father, three thousand miles away, and gets her stepmother who doesn't want to wake him, especially if it's about a problem. "He's more of a good news person," she says cheerfully. Kathy calls home, but her mother is out on a date and there's only her little brother, watching television, and as lonely as she is. She looks up a stranger in the phone book and chats with him for a while. The world isn't home to Kathy; she can't break through. So when she gets back, past midnight, and sees a bicycle at the bottom of the condo swimming pool, she dives in and pulls it out, almost drowning. When trapped in a maze, hurl yourself at its walls.

Salinger's adolescents have passed this way; Wolff's Kathy has her own desolation, more brilliance in some ways, less interior grace. Similarly, in a story about a saintly, incompetent priest whom the world regularly dumps upon, we get more than a hint of the hapless but alluring Guy Crouchback in Evelyn Waugh's war trilogy.

Father Leo, who dreams of being a missionary, drifts haplessly through the Catholic parishes of his city. He ends up as chaplain at a convent whose members are in a frenzy of theological modernization. Leo can find no lambs to save; nobody wants to be a lamb any more. One of the nuns married his predecessor; others have left or taken jobs in town. One is a disc jockey.

Wolff writes with delightful irony about Father Leo's unexpectedly successful teamwork with an extroverted fund-raiser who treats him to expensive lunches and ultimately absconds. Leo remains an innocent; finally finding his lamb in a forlorn middle-aged woman who is looking for love but settles for charity.

If Wolff handles the notion of a Divine Fool descending in a manner reminiscent of Waugh, he lacks the former's chilly faith that this is just what is supposed to happen to Divine Fools. Treated with such chill, Crouchback emerged with a comical radiance; lacking it, Father Leo gets a sentimental softening.

On the other hand, Wolff's story about the duel between an aging boy-wonder of the electronics business, and a young and rigid technocrat, has a wildness that mounts steadily out of a casual encounter. The duel is a mad series of wagers. The older man keeps betting his automobiles and losing; the younger man wins while never managing to understand the agony of someone who once won all his bets, and never will again.

The notion of the crazed wager is not new; Roald Dahl did something of the kind in his tale of a rich man who bet his fortune against other people's fingers. But Wolff makes something more than a tale out of it. It is a parable, in a way, but sufficiently unpredictable to avoid a parable's sleekness.

Another story that emerges from disquiet into a kind of grand ominousness has a jobless young man driving his pregnant wife and child across the Western desert. When the car breaks down, the disaster manages to turn his apparent strength into childish weakness, and her apparent dependence into a magnificent adaptability. The story is less perfect, in some ways, than some of the others; yet it holds a promise of Wolff's continued growth, from surprise parties to real surprise.

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