Master craftsmen at work
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Remember the song, "Nobody Does It Better." I sing it every time I read Tobias Wolff and I've been reading him for 25 years.
His newest collection will have everyone breaking out like wannabes on "American Idol": "Nobody does it half as good as you."
Ten new stories, presented here with 21 old-time favorites showcase everything that makes Wolff's writing so much like a James Bond tale. The stories are sexy, violent, sophisticated, clever, and exciting. They always engage even if they never feature shaken martinis.
By Tobias Wolff
He's clearly interested in examining the facade of control certain characters feel they have over their own lives. Often arrogant, or simply superior in their sense of how things should be done, these characters move along noting the unremarkable normalcy of their situations until bang!... something happens and suddenly danger replaces the calm that guided the characters only moments before.
Wolff's deceptively simple prose style is like listening to an old friend eagerly telling the previous night's adventures. The craftsmanship that guides these stories goes almost undetected and we read with sheer pleasure:
A history professor looking for a new job learns halfway through her interview at the university of her choice, that she's only been invited because a colleague is feeling blue. She takes her revenge during her job talk when instead of reading a prepared scholarly paper lets loose with a graphic explanation of how the Native Americans viciously tortured and maimed their enemies before sacrificing them to the gods.
Another tells of a young kid trying to earn money one summer spending one night drinking rye with some of the other farmhands. He relishes his own freedom and adulthood until one of the men puts a loaded pistol onto the table.
An older student steps outside for a smoke and is confronted by her art teacher, a woman who desperately wants her stories of struggle and loss to matter to someone. The student, while vulnerable, holds fast to her own convictions.
A man preparing for his mother's death goes funeral shopping and a conversation with a sympathetic woman sharpens his own resolve and sense of self at a time when his mother's death will certainly reshapes his future.
A bored book reviewer in a bank line is killed during a robbery when expressing outrage that the bank robbers use the cliched speech of cinema outlaws.
Beyond this, Wolff's fictions are themselves celebrations of stories, gloriously playing with character and situation and exalting the very tools that make stories -- words. In Wolff's presence one feels the importance of stories to our very existence. Sigh! Nobody does it quite the way he does!
Pulitzer-Prize winner Steven Millhauser's new book is also reason for song although the tune has to be more techno than 1970s' pop for this writer who is both stylistically and thematically the polar opposite of Wolff.
Millhauser's stories most often deal with fantasy and the supernatural in ways that are comparable to Jorge Borges but with a distinct American flair that puts him closer to John Barth.
By Steven Millhauser
His fiction examines other worlds, alternative realities and dreams, quite often holding up contemporary dilemmas for parody.
Rather than reflecting a world we recognize, Millhauser uses the trick mirrors of the satirist so that the result is a carnival-esque manifestation of several images all coming at us at once.
His humor is deadpan and rendered with strong images and equally strange sardonic tones.
My favorite, "Here at the Historical Society," opens:
"We here at the Historical Society are tireless in pursuit of the past. Those who accuse us of straying from our duty might ask themselves whether they see one-hundredth of what we see, on any afternoon, on any sidewalk."
The story, a long lament, shows the difficulties of working for such a society where one is always under attack, where one must define the importance of the job until finally the story erupts into a travesty of academic life and we really do become lost in the fun house.
Other stories play with disappearance as a cultural phenomenon. In the book's title story a girl becomes popular when she introduces her singularly outrageous laugh to her peers but vanishes completely when the laughing fad fades.
In another, a woman goes back to her apartment one evening and is never seen again. The creepy narrative muses on the solitary life and how easily people fade from our thoughts until they become nothing but memories.
In yet another one a dome is being built over a city and the spread of the sky top feels like a critique of urban sprawl and what can happen when a society simply chooses to ignore it.
Like Wolff, Millhauser is a superb craftsman whose quirky prose and offbeat subject matters manipulate the fictional narrative to get the most out of every page.
First Published March 16, 2008 12:00 am