by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he boy at the center of This Boy's Life, a well-known memoir set in Washington state, is now a distinguished professor in his 60s, a teacher of creative writing. He's clearly among the handful of greatest living American short story writers.
He may, officially, be Tobias Wolff, but the folks at Knopf refer to him as "Toby," and 15 years ago, a teenager named Leo DiCaprio played Toby in a movie based on that memoir, so "Toby" is what part of him will always be.
This Boy's Life recounts the rigors of growing up around Dwight, a narrow-minded, abusive stepfather, in the way-up-the-mountain confines of Concrete, Wash. (over there by Sedro-Woolley). Dwight's a control freak who wants to turn Toby into a real man; Toby has ideas of his own, which eventually involve forging papers to get himself admitted to an elite East Coast prep school.
Wolff has supplemented his boyhood memoir with what are, in effect, two sequels: a novel, Old School, about feeling misfit and pseudo-literary at that Pennsylvania prep school (from which Wolff, in real life, later got expelled -- something to do, once again, with his talent for imitating others' work). And then there's Wolff's ran-off-to-the-army memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, which recounts the absurdities of his birth father's compulsive lying and of being caught up in the Tet Offensive.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ut you don't want to listen to Toby Wolff at the Spokane Club on Sunday just because, almost 20 years ago, he wrote a memoir about growing up in Washington state -- or because of the other memoirs, good as they are.
You want to listen to Wolff because of his short stories. He has come out with a volume of short fiction, stories both new and collected, called Our story begins.
Like his friend Raymond Carver, Wolff can wrest beauty from the mundane. As in Carver's famous story "Cathedral" (in which a man, by getting to know his wife's blind friend better, learns more about himself), Wolff's "Next Door" (1981) lurches from discomfort and ugliness to a vision of hope. The narrator, rendered sleepless by the volcanic fights of the married couple across the way, imagines the lives of Wild West explorers, whose lives are horrific until we see them "sleeping in a meadow filled with white flowers. The blossoms are wet with dew and stick to their bodies, petals of columbine, clematis, blazing star, bay's breath, larkspur, iris, rue -- covering them completely, turning them white so you cannot tell one from another, man from woman, woman from man."
This is an ending that's engaging in the best sense: You can't weigh its impact until you've reread and pondered the entire story.
In contrast, in the title story from Wolff's 1996 collection, The Night in Question, the frame story is more prominent -- the emphasis is on the setup, not the ending. A sermon about a man having to choose between saving dozens of people's lives and saving his own son's life doesn't arrive at the moralizing conclusion you might expect. Instead, three kinds of bullies are paralleled: a physically abusive father, our sense of obligation to those less fortunate, even God Himself.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n addition to 21 previously published stories, Wolff presents 10 new tales in Our story begins. Plot twists and sudden eruptions of the unexpected are more prominent now; the spare style remains, though perhaps there's less emphasis on those head-scratching, off-kilter endings.
A woman in her 40s returns to college in "A Mature Student," and when she shares a smoking break with her art history professor, the setup seems to promise a teacher/student exchange with lessons properly learned. Instead, it's the prof -- brusque and demanding in her Eastern European way -- who has the long-hidden secrets and the need to grow: The teacher gets taught. The student learns as well, though her lesson's unexpected: She learns a new resolve -- to hold up to higher standards not only herself, but also her son and even the professor herself.
In "Her Dog," a man takes his mutt for a walk on the beach and ends up having a conversation about true love. Wolff undermines any sentimentality by ending his story with the dog burrowing into dirt. The dog's just being a dog, but his master's a changed man. (So's the reader.)
In "A White Bible," power shifts from kidnapper to kidnappee and back again, with side trips into Catholic education, the innocence of little children, and the second and third chances that all of us somehow deserve. In its crosscurrents, the characters' virtues and weaknesses glint and then fade. But they remain in your mind.
Telling lies habitually, being in denial about abuse, making up stories just to get along -- Toby Wolff's youth was filled with untruths. But though he may have been a forger once, now Toby Wolff is writing down the things that are true.
Tobias Wolff will read from Our story begins: New and Selected Stories and take audience questions in a discussion hosted by Jess Walter at the Spokane Club, 1002 W. Riverside Ave., on Sunday, April 20, at 1 pm, with a book signing to follow at Auntie's Bookstore. Tickets: $10. Call 325-SEAT.