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Life happens

Our Story Begins New and Selected Stories; Tobias Wolff; Alfred A. Knopf: 380 pp., $26.95

March 23, 2008|Marianne Wiggins | Marianne Wiggins' most recent novel is "The Shadow Catcher." She teaches creative writing at USC.

THE novel, as a form, has a number of advantages over its narrative rival, the short story. It's a long-term companion. It offers a sustained relationship. You can take it to the beach or on vacation, and it won't leave you stranded halfway to Cancun. From the practitioner's point of view, the novel's chief advantage is that it is the more forgiving. You can take a lengthy detour in a novel and the novel, in the end, can still succeed. You can wax prolific on a minor subject and the novel will absorb it, like a snake swallowing a hog.

Not so the short story. When it's done well, the economy, the rigor, the precision that the form demands are hardly noticed by its consumer. But it is more difficult to write, in its line-to-line execution, than any other narrative conceit. And Tobias Wolff is a genius at it.

Wolff has been honing his short stories for 30 years. His mind, his wisdom, his timing and his wit cut through our stasis with the elegance of a world-class surgeon. The medical analogy is apt: These are stories that can save your life (if you are inclined, as I am, to believe that fiction is a kind of preventive medicine). At his best, Wolff conjures stories that etch your memory -- which is to say, they become a part of you. This makes him, in my book, a very great writer indeed.

"Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories" includes 21 stories from Wolff's previous three short fiction collections and 11 new ones, arranged, it would seem, in the order they first appeared in print. (All 32 stories -- and I emphasize all -- have been published in periodicals such as the New Yorker, Playboy and Esquire, the Walrus and the Missouri Review.) Wolff is one of our most anthologized short story writers; his seminal "Hunters in the Snow," "Mortals" and "Bullet in the Brain" show up, perennially, in college textbooks and syllabuses. Yet reputation aside, let me tell you why you should read this book:

At least four of these stories are as good as it gets. Whether you're looking at our nation's canon of short fiction trailing back to Hawthorne and Poe, or focusing on the 20th century masters, Hemingway through Salinger through Carver, Wolff is writing, and excelling, in that league. Of the components in short fiction -- voice, character, motif, trajectory, dialogue, first sentence, pacing, title, curtain line -- Wolff lays each down impeccably and quietly, a master mason, without fanfare and without the current faddishness for flourishes and turkey-cocking. He never has you running to the dictionary. His language is so ordinary that you think you've thought it up yourself. A typical first sentence (from "The Liar") reads: "My mother read everything except books." Or this, from "Sanity": "Getting from La Jolla to Alta Vista State Hospital isn't easy, unless you have a car or a breakdown." Then, there are these first three sentences, from "Next Door": "I wake up afraid. My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. 'They're at it again,' she says."

All three openings are the sorts of things people say, the sorts of things a stranger sitting next to you might casually (and a little crazily) confess. There's nothing artificial -- artistic -- about them. They happen, the way life happens. And Wolff, you come to sense, has been letting life happen to him, observing it and noting it, as a surrogate for us all. Here he is describing a family in one of my favorite stories, "Flyboys," in which two adolescent boys decide to build a jet plane:

"They were lucky people, Clark's parents, lucky and unsurprised by their luck. You could see in the pictures that they took it all in stride, the big spreads behind them, the boats and cars, and their relaxed, handsome families who, it was clear, did not get laid off, or come down with migraines, or lock each other out of the house."

The specificity of those details (those locked doors) carries to his dialogue, which, no matter how quotidian, is never empty. In "Mortals," a man reports his own death to the local paper so he can read his obituary. Eventually he and the narrator of the story (the obituary writer, who gets fired) discuss the situation:

" 'You can lead a good life without being a celebrity,' he said. 'People with big names aren't always big people.'

" 'That's true,' I said, 'but it's sort of a little person's truth.' "

Although he writes stories of the upper classes, featuring prep school boys and wealthy South American socialites, Wolff's favorite characters are those little persons -- three doofus hunters, dangerous in their combined stupidity; a gay Army sergeant conflicted by "don't ask, don't tell"; a man who learns that the high school love about whom he has dreamed his whole adult life is irreconcilably dead.

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