four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
By: 
Tobias Wolff
user_rating: 
0

A-Our Story BeginsThe award-winning Tobias Wolff, also a novelist and memoirist (This Boy’s Life [1989], In Pharaoh’s Army [1994], Old School [2003]), may be best known for his short fiction. Our Story Begins is his forth collection of short stories, and its enthusiastic reviews indicate that Wolff has lost none of his narrative power—or his widespread popularity—over the years.

The Story: Our Story Begins combines 21 of Wolff’s "greatest hits" with 10 new stories, resulting in a collection that highlights both the continuities in and changes to Wolff’s writing over the years. While the stories often differ widely in subject matter and tone, they are tied together by an exploration of both mundane and unexpected human connections. In "Desert Breakdown, 1968," a man stranded in the California desert debates leaving his pregnant wife and young child to find a new life alone in Hollywood. A mother worries about her young son’s compulsive lying in the touching and highly metaphorical tale "The Liar." And, in the seminal "Hunters in the Snow," three men embark on a hunting trip that goes very, very wrong.
Knopf. 400 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1400044596

Washington Post 5 of 5 Stars
"Our Story Begins is a towering monument of a book. … Every one of [these] stories … is good enough to merit reading again, immediately after finishing." Jeff Turrentine

Chicago Sun-Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Ten new stories take up just over 100 pages, but they display a stunning range of thought, observation and writing chops. … He is also a writer intensely aware that for some people—maybe most—every day is like no other day." John Barron

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Wolff’s] mind, his wisdom, his timing and his wit cut through our stasis with the elegance of a world-class surgeon. … 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." Marianne Wiggins

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"For readers who aren’t acquainted with his writing … this book can function as a Portable Wolff, concentrating some of his best work in one place and reflecting the breadth of his gifts in the short form. … Wolff’s voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing." Liesl Schillinger

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Wolff can shift fearlessly from dark comedy to mournful yet sober lamentation. … Of the 10 new stories, only two are disappointing, the rest entirely satisfying." Dan Cryer

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he special quality of Wolff’s best pieces is that their endings do not close but launch them, free them to take a different direction, begin them someplace else. … All but a few are ingenious to the point where ingenuity can certainly be its own reward." Richard Eder

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"These are stories in which the reader is drawn in by a quirky or intriguing premise and propelled along by the glittering little emotional and physical details that Mr. Wolff likes to scatter like bread crumbs throughout his narrative. His prose is so lively and engaging that the reader often notices the contrived nature of the stories only in retrospect." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Acclaimed writer Marianne Wiggins notes in the Los Angles Times: "When it’s done well, the economy, the rigor, the precision that the [short story] 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." That assessment sums up the general opinion of Wolff’s many reviewers, who praise his mastery of the form, his compassion, and his openness to life’s many twists and turns. There is some disagreement about which of the collection’s tales, many first published in the New Yorker, is the best and which one or two might have been left out in favor of others that are not included here. With the notable exception of the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, critics seem to agree wholeheartedly with Wiggins’s opinion that this extraordinary collection "is a volume that belongs on everybody’s shelf."