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Masterful, Moving, Magical
on 30 May 2005
Before I picked up this book I was only vaguely aware of Tobias Wolff, never having, as far as I can recall, read anything of his. I did remember that he had written a memoir of his peripatetic childhood that was praised probably fifteen years ago. I was unprepared for the power and grace of this collection of short stories published in 1996. A little research on the Internet tells me that Wolff is primarily a short story writer -- he has certainly found his niche in that, although I gather he has recently written a novel -- and is a professor at Stanford. But, most of all, he is a born story-teller. This is not to say that one is not also aware of the lapidary quality of his writing. My point is that even absent his writing skill he would still be someone you'd want to engage in conversation, or rather someone you'd like to sit and listen to as he spins yarns about the mundane. The mundane is his subject, but like all good writers, he puts it in such a perspective as to make it new and insightful.
Others before me, here at Amazon, have written about certain of the short stories here. The stories' subject matter is, generally, that of youth and young adulthood, and most importantly, about observation. His protagonists seem to have a preternatural writer's eye, which is part of what I look for in fiction. That's one of the great things about a great writer -- that ability to see things in ways most of us don't.
My favorite story? Probably 'Firelight,' about a boy and his hapless but courageous mother who go to look at apartments. Simple plot, but with deep implications about belonging, what home and family is, and about hope. The coda of this story, with the little boy all grown up and with a family of his own, tells us, as so often in Wolff's stories, how childhood experience colors our adult lives. Beautiful. I suppose now I'll have to go and read everything Wolff has written. Nice to contemplate.