Tobias Wolff is known primarily for his short stories, though he has also written memoirs of his early years that were critically well-received.
Back in the World is the third Wolff book I have read, and the second collection of his short stories. I first read This Boy’s Life, Wolff’s autobiographical account of his childhood and his harrowing relationship with his stepfather Dwight. I thought that was terrific, though I probably liked the movie version—with a mesmerizing performance of Robert De Niro as Dwight—even more. Later I read the short story collection The Night in Question and enjoyed that as well, though I wouldn’t rank it up there with This Boy’s Life.
Back in the World (1985) is actually Wolff’s second collection of stories and The Night in Question (1997) is his third, so I don’t happen to be reading his works in chronological order. Wolff is a Vietnam War veteran in real life, and “back in the world” is an expression American soldiers in Vietnam used to refer to returning to civilian life after your stint overseas. So I thought perhaps these stories would all have something to do with Vietnam veterans readjusting back home, but that’s not the case. Perhaps Wolff is using the term more broadly here to mean just contemporary American (civilian) society in general, and not necessarily or exclusively its relation to military life.
I feel like the way one responds to fiction is if anything even more subjective than the way one responds to nonfiction, so it can sometimes be hard for me to know quite how to justify an opinion about a novel or collection of short stories. But what I’ll say is that I felt even more drawn in on average by the stories in Back in the World than by the stories in The Night in Question, even though as noted my assessment of the latter collection had been a favorable one.
The stories in this book are very character-driven. Wolff has a way of presenting his characters that makes you feel you get to know them and are able to analyze them surprisingly well for spending so few pages with them. Or at least you get a sense of some one or more essential things about them as people, things that perhaps you can then relate to the human condition in general or to your own life in particular.
Mostly what you get to know about them in these stories is negative, but no less intriguing for that. Not negative in the sense that they’re bad people or that you’re encouraged to side against them, but negative in the sense that they’re confused or suffering and so you feel for them. There’s definitely a sadness to this material. These are insightful portraits of lonely people, people who feel unconnected, people who feel trapped, people who are faced with the fact that their life hasn’t turned out at all like they’d hoped.
As a friend of mine says, “You want to make God laugh? Make plans!” These are people having to face the fact that circumstances and other people determine the development of your life and your relationships more than you might care to admit, and often take them in directions contrary to your preferences.
Coming Attractions is the story of a girl working alone late at night in a theater, waiting for the movie to let out so she can go home. Feeling lonely, she reaches out by phone. First she calls her divorced father, but gets his girlfriend. That goes nowhere, as she has no interest in talking to the girlfriend, plus she has no plausible explanation for why she’s calling them after midnight. Next she calls a random stranger. It’s a prank call where she pretends he has been picked at random for some prize, but she gets bored and can’t sustain it. Instead she tries to make confessions about her slutty vices and such—easier to talk about such things to a total stranger who doesn’t even know your name than to someone you know I suppose—but she can’t sustain that either and makes up some lies and lapses into a more frivolous attitude. When she ultimately drifts home, she does a small kindness for her little brother, but it is perhaps meaningful that he is not present. It shows a generous side of her, but she remains sadly alone.
The Missing Person is one of the stories that stayed with me the most. The protagonist is a priest who had been quite ambitious and idealistic in his youth, but who was unable to find any better job than a series of subordinate positions where he is mostly unappreciated and unable to fully act on the idealism that inspired him to become a priest in the first place. He ends up as the chaplain at a convent. Much of the story takes place on a trip to Las Vegas he takes with an outside person he has worked with to raise money for the convent. While there he has a series of encounters with a woman who may or may not need his help, and may or may not be receptive to it if offered. She is a vaguely unappealing person, both physically—Wolff dwells on the grease spread on her sunburns, the fact that she’s a smoker, etc.—and personality-wise. She’s a bit unstable, not popular—kind of the opposite of charismatic. What this story is about to me is the way your opportunities to do good in life may be few and far between, may be nothing like you expected or planned, and may involve people or situations that you are not comfortable with and don’t play to your altruistic strengths as it were. And so the question becomes, as it does for the rather meek and unsuccessful but still basically goodhearted priest, are you able to take advantage of such imperfect opportunities and still make a positive difference in someone’s life?
Say Yes is the shortest story in the collection, about a marital argument. On the surface the argument is about the rightness or wrongness of interracial relationships, but pretty clearly they’re at a point in their marriage where they push each other’s buttons all too easily, including when they’re going out of their way not to because they don’t want to get into another such pointless dispute, which is certainly how the husband perceives this particular argument. They don’t seem like terrible people—annoying, yes, mostly the wife, but not particularly awful—but it’s still another sad, dark feeling story, in this case about being unable to connect in a healthy way even with the person you should be most connected to.
The Poor are Always With Us is about the awkwardness and conflict that can easily arise between people of different social classes. Two young fellows, one more a yuppie type and one more a working class type, encounter each other at an auto repair shop. The yuppie is a bit more like the husband in Say Yes, mostly trying to avoid escalating a conflict but kind of resigned to it, while the working class guy is more like the wife in that story, more obsessed about standing his ground and being right. The yuppie wins a large wager from the working class guy, even though he’s ambivalent about taking advantage of him. He even tries to give back the winnings, but the prideful loser is too busy being verbally hostile and defiant to be able to listen. It’s as if people of a certain class are destined to win whether they’re even trying to or not, while people of a lower class will never be able to catch up, in some cases as a direct result of their negative, resentful attitudes. And through it all they will lack the willingness and/or ability to communicate with people across class lines.
Sister paints a picture of how unglamorous and again vaguely sad and unpleasant a fairly conventional single life can be. The protagonist is a young—but maybe not so young anymore—woman who is probably of just enough dating market value to be accepted for casual socializing and one-night stands and such, but typically not more. Her way of attempting to make a meaningful connection with someone is probably just something that seems like the only option to someone like her, the kind of thing she’s used to doing and used to seeing from her peers. It’s smoking, drinking, at least light recreational drug use, bars, small talk, being somewhat conscious of your looks in going to the gym and how you dress, etc. She seems decidedly mediocre across the board, not someone I would likely want to be with, but I don’t know that that means she deserves to be as lonely as she is.
Soldier’s Joy is the story that most fits the title of the collection. The protagonist is a Vietnam veteran. He is still in the military, but back stateside now. The story takes us through his night on guard duty. What is mostly a typical night for him, filled with boredom and petty conflicts, takes a more unsettling turn when he is faced with a fellow soldier with a gun threatening suicide. In reading about this collection, I found that Soldier’s Joy is one of the stories that garnered the most praise, but for whatever reason it was one of the ones that connected with me the least.
On the other hand, Desert Breakdown 1968 is one of the stories that most drew me in. Mark is a veteran who is used to being treated as a loser by his domineering father and having to consistently swallow his pride and go to his father to be bailed out when things go wrong in his life so as to confirm the old man’s low assessment of him. He acquires a wife and young son while stationed in Germany, and he has now returned to the United States with little in the way of resources to support them (again, unless he turns to his parents), and seemingly not as much connection to them as one might hope. The story takes place with them driving to California, where he again gets himself in trouble and runs out of money. The more desperate he becomes the more he sees his wife and child as a burden, and he wonders if whatever slight chance he has to ever make a life for himself independent of his father would be augmented by simply abandoning them. I felt for him, I felt for the wife—again it’s a sad story of failure and lack of truly healthy human relationships.
Our Story Begins involves a story within a story. A (typical for these stories) alone and not particularly happy person stops at a coffeehouse on his way home from his unrewarding, dead end restaurant job. He overhears a story told by one of three people at a nearby table. The people are not fighting, but there’s something vaguely hostile in their interaction—subtle putdowns, competition to dominate the conversation, etc. The story one of them tells is of an immigrant who had a brief dating relationship with a woman that he overreacted to as a huge deal but that she broke off early as not working out and moved on. The immigrant became increasingly erratic and unstable, attempting to woo her back in ways that soon crossed into creepy stalking. So really Our Story Begins has that usual sense of lonely people unable to connect in a healthy way with others, just on three different levels due to its complex structure.
Leviathan is a story of a group of thirtyish folks getting together for a birthday party. There are elements of what on the surface I suppose could make for a good time (they’re presented as friends, they’re coupled up in relationships, they’re enjoying some drugs together, etc.), but they mostly don’t seem to like each other very much and they’re not very likable to a reader, at least to me. The social milieu has that vaguely dark and unpleasant feeling to it that it does in most of these stories—people physically together but not really connecting in an honest and happy way, various tensions and competitions, people going through the motions of conventional socializing but seemingly not reaping whatever benefits are supposed to ensue from doing so, people recognizing that they’ve settled for a lot less than they wish they could have in their relationships, etc.
Back in the World closes with The Rich Brother, the story of two adult brothers, one conventionally successful, and one something of a hippie simpleton bouncing around amongst various cults, alternative subcultures, fads, etc. The successful brother nags his younger sibling about being more responsible and making better choices, to little or no effect. He continues to support him when he gets into trouble however, much like the father in Desert Breakdown 1968, but also like in that story you don’t exactly get a heartwarming feeling of assistance motivated by family love. The successful brother kind of grimly puts up with what he sees as his brother’s immaturity and loser qualities, with neither the helper nor the helpee experiencing any particular joy from the generosity or from the relationship. The older brother’s willingness to help his vulnerable younger brother in fact stems in part from guilt over how in childhood he did the opposite of support him when he was vulnerable.
There’s precious little that’s uplifting in the stories of Back in the World. They are for the most part well-crafted and interesting, but nonetheless consistently sad. Some of the characters are likable, some are not. Some of them seem to have a decent amount to offer, some do not. But they are consistently unable to rise above their life circumstances, and unable to solve the riddle of how there can be so many fundamentally lonely people in such close proximity to each other in such a crowded world, somehow unable to come together in any but awkward or antagonistic ways when they all seemingly have the same goal of loving and being loved and ceasing to be so alone.