Book Review: THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, by Tobias Wolff

The journal where I volunteer has this "Tobias Wolff Fiction Award" that they give out every year, and I've always felt a bit awkward checking in entries for awards when I've never read anything by the authors they're named after--but only I would feel weird about that.

So I set out to read Tobias Wolff. I mean, he's not just an award-winning author, is he? He must be a master at the short story to get short fiction awards named after him.

And that's pretty much right. I never quite got into Raymond Carver (the American master of the short story, or whatever titles have been ascribed to him). Never cared much for his selfish, whiny, "true-to-life" characters, though there was something lively and direct to his writing style that I appreciated. Tobias Wolff takes that liveliness and runs, creating stories around characters that I don't have to like in order to enjoy (make sense?), putting them in situations where I can't help but feel oddly unified with them, whatever decision they make, for ten or fifteen pages.

The man's pretty much a short story genius. He creates these little scenes where something significant happens, though you're not always sure what--not even after you finish the story. Wolff drops you right in the midst of things, giving you only what's necessary to help you find your bearings--he never states a character's age or race or location outright, but feeds it to you hint by hint. I think this is brilliant.

I really hate it when an author sits a character in front of a mirror, to put her make-up on, say, and then describes in boring detail what she looks like and how she feels about her looks, blah blah blah. It just feels so gimicky--"here, let's take a break from the story and make sure you can picture the main character, right down to the gap between her teeth." I much prefer when an author sneaks something crucial in by making mention of a certain gesture, or a favorite drink. Doesn't matter much then what she looks like, physically--how a favorite dress fits can give a much clearer indication of what sort of person she is. Example:
She had on a sleeveless dress, yellow with black flowers, that she knew to be ugly and wore anyway, because it made people conscious of her.

--"Sanity", p. 75
I like this directness in short fiction. When authors mess around forever making sure that I have the feel of the story just right, I get annoyed. Wolff is very kind about not doing that.

My favorite story in the collection? "The Other Miller". Oh yeah, and "Bullet in the Brain." Whew.


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