Review | Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories by Tobias Wolff

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

by Tobias Wolff

Published by Knopf

400 pages, 2008






Ordinary People

Reviewed by Diane Leach

Reading Our Story Begins was often painful, reminding me as it did Wolff’s fellow travelers, Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, those masters of domestic disaster. Our Story was especially reminiscent of Carver, who mined a similar geographic landscape and counted Wolff as a friend.  Not to say that Wolff copies either man; rather, that the three make their business the pain and bewilderment arising between ordinary people, often families. Wolff’s people, like Dubus’ and Carver’s, lead largely unhappy lives of struggle and fear. Some are strapped for cash, while others are plain in over their heads. The stories investigate what they hide in life’s interstices, and what happens when things snap.

Our Story Begins contains 31 stories traversing roughly the same time period. The sheer size of the book -- 400 pages -- precludes careful discussion of each piece. Don’t let the length put you off. Wolff’s polished, unobtrusive writing carries you along steadily until, with a start, the book is finished. His is not a pyrotechnic style trafficking in sentence-stopping metaphors or doses of  alternative reality. Nobody turns into a zombie (at least of the George Romero variety); children do not suddenly morph into movie stars or develop metaphor-laden maladies.  Life just piles forward, beating everybody down with bad marriages, needy children, and lousy weather. The usual stuff, rendered in a refreshingly plainspoken style:

Mark felt he had been deceived. Not by Krystal, she would never do that, but by everyone who had ever been married and knew the truth about it and never let on.

My mother swore we’d never live in a boardinghouse again, but circumstances did not allow her to keep this promise.

 He had often wished that his desires had served him better but in this he supposed he wasn’t unusual -- that it was a lucky man indeed whose desires served him well.

A few stories bear special mention. “Next Door,” with its horrific neighbors, is deeply unsettling -- we’ve all lived next door to drunken monsters at some point.  (In my case, right now.) “Hunters in the Snow,” with its inarticulate, foolish hunting buddies, evokes “So Much Water So Close to Home.”  In “The Rich Brother,”  Pete, a successful realtor, must constantly rescue his brother Donald, an eccentric drifter who continually voices disapproval of Donald’s comfortable lifestyle despite being its lifelong beneficiary.

In “Leviathan,” two extremely coked-out couples are celebrating a birthday party. As evening rolls over into early morning, then day,  they lose themselves in too much pot, booze and coke, admitting -- and learning -- far more about themselves than they might prefer.

In “Desert Breakdown, 1968” a young man recently out of the service, saddled to a pregnant German wife and toddler he does not love, tries desperately to convince himself he as a chance in show business.  In truth he cannot even manage to keep his car running in the California desert. The people he encounters when the car does break down are straight out of Deliverance.  After a nightmarish hitchhiking trip ends in failure, he is reduced to telephoning his parents for help. Again.

The quiet murmur of the prose juxtaposes often violent moments: there are several stories involving guns, which invariably go off; in “The Chain,” a revenge plot goes sickeningly awry. “Bullet in the Brain” offers wry commentary on that most exacting of book reviewers, the failed writer. Years of reading the fine work of others has rendered him a nasty, bitter man who pays with his life.   

What comes through, more than violence, is quiet desperation.  A man prices coffins while his mother lies dying. Another man recalls shopping -- browsing, really -- with his impoverished mother as she moves him to yet another boardinghouse.  Looking back, now grown, with a fine house, a loving wife and children, he is deeply afraid of accepting his good fortune, lest it be taken away. A man deposits his dreamy young son at a militaristic boarding school only to be overtaken by horror at his decision -- but he cannot find his way back to the school. 

Life, real life, is slamming us at every turn, punishing our bad decisions, quietly biding our better ones. Wolff’s stories want us to know this, to recognize and accept it.  Only then is there any hope, however small, in transcendence, though often enough there is nothing more than the results of our choices, and how we endure them. | April 2008


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.