This Boy ’5 Life, starring Robert De Niro, brought the life of Tobias Wolff to movie audiences. With his latest collection of short stories, Wolff once again delves into his past, as he tells Ann Donald.
Tobias Wolff was ﬁrst compared to the meisters of the great American short story tradition Raymond Carver and Richard Ford with his debut collection The Garden Of The North American Martyrs. That book. with its clipped. taut prose. kickstarted the 80s renaissance in the American short story genre.
Since then. Wolff‘s athletic but passionate prose has gained a wider public with the movie of his memoir This Boy Is Life. starring Robert De Niro. and most recently In Pharaoh Is Army. an award-winning
account of his service in Vietnam.
Now the Syracuse writer-in-residence has returned to the lucid land of his heroes and heroines Flannery O’Connor. Chekov. Hemingway and Fitzgerald. with a short story collection The Night In Question. A master observer of the uncomfortable foible-prone human being, Wolff has created an intensely personal book exploring our own self-deceits. Yet he retains a cool distance. with room for contemplation and brutal insight. A tinge ofthe sad loner haunts many of these unforgettable stories — the English teacher unable to
Tobias Woltt: revisits his Vietnam days
admit to having been beaten up by a guy of Napoleonesque stature; the Vietnam vet unable to admit his relief in the death of a buddy; the man pushed to admitting placing his own obituary.
For Wolff. his characters‘ retelling of the truth reflects our own lives. ‘lt‘s something we all do.‘ he says. ‘We manufacture realities and versions of ourselves. It‘s a kind of wish fulfilment that doesn’t acknowledge the facts. Yet it's the abrasion between reality and mythologising that produces not only trouble in our lives. but creativity and excitement.‘
Two particular stories in the collection — ‘Casualty'
and ‘The Other Miller' — forced Wolff to face the truth about his past as a Vietnam soldier. ‘Because I actually wrote this collection over a period often years I was also writing This Boy 's Life and In Pharaohs Army at the satne time.‘ he says. ’I used to break off from the longer fictions when the pressure and need for relief from writing a short story became too great.‘ he says. ‘That. without wanting to ever
‘With this story I did have that sense I’d been hit by lightning - it produced a charge that carried me all the way through writing it.’
lose the trance-like state you get into writing long
The stories involving Vietnam were written before Wolff began writing In Pharaoh 's Army. ‘Though ‘Casualty’ and ‘The Other Miller‘ are not about the whole military life. spiritually they are autobiographical,‘ he says. ‘In retrospect I‘d say that writing them prepared me for writing a novel I really didn‘t want to write.‘
Though Wolff is reluctant to highlight a particular favourite among the collection — ‘It's like being made to choose a favourite child’ — he acknowledges a proud moment for the ﬁnal story ‘Bullet In The Brain‘. about a smart-mouthed book reviewer whose life is beautifully summarised in two pages of dynamic prose. ‘Yeah.‘ he smiles. ‘There's a story of the poet who stands out in a storm hoping to be struck by lightning for inspiration. With this story I did have that sense I'd been hit by lightning — it produced a charge that carried me all the way through
In fact, Wolff is erring towards self-effacement — the inspirational lightning strike pervades the entire. quietly understated diamond quality collection.
The Night In Question by Tobias Wolff is published by Blorntlsbllt'_\‘ at £15. 99.
. Alice in Noonland
Talking to left lloon is nearly as much tun as reading his novels. Couched in an almost sing-song Mancunian accent, his conversation is buoyed up with torrents ot enthusiasm which come across even In a short telephone conversation.
It’s an enthusiasm that his books are equally adept at communicating, none more so than his latest novel Automated Alice, a ‘trequel’ to Lewis Carroll’s two children’s books Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through The looking Class.
ltoon takes Carroll’s Alice through time to 1998 and a fantasy version of
Jett Noon: has resurrected lewis Carroll’s Allce
Manchester, inhabited by anthropomorphic badgers, dogs and zebras and talking termites. Helped by her twin ‘twister’ Celia, the automated Alice at the title, Alice spends the book trying to tind a way back to her own era. But her quest is hindered by the malicious ‘civil serpents’ who are in charge at tomorrow’s Manchester and she tinds herselt accused of the horritic crimes ot the jigsaw murderer.
The book is a breezy, tun-tilled, pun- tilled delight and not what you would expect from the writer of the trippy home-grown cyberpunk novels Vurt and Pollen. Iloon, however, has long been a Ian at Carroll’s original novels and he wanted to do them justice.
‘It was quite a nerve-wracking thing to do,’ he explains. ‘You shouldn’t really mess with the classics. But I tried to keep it in the spirit of lewis Carroll. I didn’t want to destroy it. That would have been so easy to do -
having lots at sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but I thought ‘Well, maybe not.’
Who, I wonder, was the book aimed at? ‘I haven’t a clue,’ says Iloon. ‘I think it’s one of those books that will ﬁnd its audience eventually. I hope that some kids will get into it, certainly teenagers, but adults as well. I mean anyone who’s got an ounce of innocence lett, I think.’
lloon’s vision of his home city that was so much a part oi his earlier books resurfaces here and it remains a tar cry trom the kitchen-sink realism of the typical ‘northern’ novel.
‘I can’t do realism. Believe me, I try every so often but I haven’t got the brains tor it. And I’m in love with the imagination.’
It seems a tair excuse, all in all. (Teddy Jamieson)
Automated Alice by Jeff Iloon is published by Doubleday at £14.99.
86 The List l-l4 Nov 1996