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The Night in Question

Tobias Wolff

Syracuse University creative writing teacher Mary Karr, who enjoyed considerable celebrity recently with her bestselling memoir, The Liar’s Club, once dubbed John Irving “a Tobias Wolff hack.” I was planted in the back row of her classroom when she spewed this barb, and while I had never heard of Wolff, Irving was a literary god. This made Karr a blasphemer in my eyes, not to mention an elitist asshole. I even contemplated dropping her lousy class, that is until she explained the three factors that had shaped her alarming logic: 1.) Wolff also teaches creative writing at Syracuse, 2.) Wolff is one of Karr’s closest friends, and 3.) another of Karr’s pals just happens to be the ex-wife of a successful novelist named, you guessed it, John Irving.

Since 1991, when Karr fired her vengeful bullet, Wolff has crept closer to fame, capturing the attention of critics and fans worldwide and drawing comparisons to several stalwarts of contemporary fiction, most notably the great Raymond Carver. The resemblance between Carver and Wolff is easy to see, as both focus on the subtleties of human nature to generate plot, rarely leaning on ironic twists or clever gimmicks. But as Wolff proves with the 15 stories in The Night in Question, his voice is an absolute original.

Whether in his novels, novellas, or stories, Wolff’s characters are always ordinary folks assuming the required stances and donning the necessary masks to make it to the next day. In The Night in Question, the lay of Wolff’s land is once again the next block over, but it has become a place where the degrees of consequence have been heightened. When a young girl is attacked by a vicious dog in “The Chain,” her father allows a friend to even the score by wiping out the canine. But when the friend asks the father for a favor in return, a request equally illegal and immoral, Wolff portrays what unpredictable rewards justice and sweet revenge can be.

“Two Boys and a Girl” and “Migraine” examine the bare-bones heartache of people helplessly falling in and out of love, with each other and themselves. In the former story, Wolff’s paramour is a notably unhorny teenage boy falling for his best friend’s girl; the latter features a middle-aged lesbian with a raging headache on the verge of deserting a longtime companion. In “The Night in Question,” Wolff presents a moral quandary to top them all: If you had to decide between saving your child, trapped in the nasty gearworks of a drawbridge, or saving several hundred people, all strangers, by setting the gears in motion and lowering the bridge to allow an oncoming commuter train to pass, which would you choose? It’s an ugly, unwelcome question, and Wolff leaves the reader to supply the answer.

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The collection’s two strongest offerings are its most apparently serene tale and its most explicitly violent one. “Powder” is a quiet story about a freewheeling father and his uptight son driving home through a Christmas snowstorm, and although Wolff unveils details at a leisurely pace, the tale proves his efficiency as a wordsmith. The voice of the adolescent son, articulate yet plain-spoken, is reminiscent of Wolff’s best-selling memoir, This Boy’s Life. At a young age, the son is already able to recognize his own shortcomings (an inability to loosen up and see beyond the straight and narrow), but still has trouble dealing with his father’s (a failure to act responsibly even in the face of a pending divorce). With its descriptions of snow (no doubt influenced by the author’s living near New York’s Finger Lakes) and the narrator’s poignant inner struggles, “Powder” is a subtle masterpiece to be savored word by word.

Down the first long stretch I watched the road behind us, to see if the trooper was on our tail. The barricade vanished. Then there was nothing but snow: snow on the road, snow kicking up from the chains, snow on the trees, snow in the sky; and our trail in the snow. Then I faced forward and had a shock. The lay of the road behind us had been marked by our own tracks, but there were no tracks ahead of us. My father was breaking virgin snow between a line of tall trees. He was humming “Stars Fell on Alabama.” I felt snow brush along the floorboards under my feet. To keep my hands from shaking I clamped them between my knees.

“Bullet in the Brain” is the acerbic tale of a stuffy literary critic who gets shot in the head during a bank robbery because he can’t stop mocking the crooks’ cliché-ridden speech. The first half of the story boils with the condescending (and extremely amusing) thoughts of the critic as he arrogantly pities the people surrounding him, whether they’re friends and family or strangers in the bank line. Wolff has written this character as a straight-up dickhead—it’s obvious the author had some vengeful fun imagining him. But soon a gun is fired, and in the final flashes of the critic’s life Wolff refuses to glorify any aspect of an undeserving soul:

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him—her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in, “Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play,” and, “Let’s hide Mr. Mole!” Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter’s door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the truly appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways.

What Anders does remember, as the bullet rips through “shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus,” constitutes a strangely poignant finish to a surprisingly funny story.

Despite the differences in his characters’ ages and motivations, underneath the premise of each of these stories Wolff’s grasp of the complexities of human thought is firm.

Too many of today’s “serious” fiction writers pummel readers with vague openings and amorphous endings; all too often they strive for a “Wow, look what I just wrote!” response with a sentence that may look pretty but is devoid of substance. Storytelling has become a neglected art form, and sappy, uninteresting diary entries rule literature’s currently barren landscape. Such writers could learn something from Wolff. He is always careful with every word, every sentence, every sigh. There is a purpose to his road trips; he has a destination in mind. Wolff is the real deal, a storyteller with conscience and compassion. CP