BACK IN THE WORLD by Tobias Wolff


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This second collection of Wolff's stories (In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, 1981, was the first) continues to show an enormous technical sophistication--and a blurring, chameleon-ish tendency. Wolff is right up there in practicing an impressive variety of modernist narrative techniques. . .post-Modernist, even: he's supple enough to go back without apology, as he does in ""Our Story Begins"" and ""The Rich Brother"" to the still sturdy if old-fashioned device of someone telling a story to someone else in the story the reader reads. He's an homage-payer, too: there's a priest-story with (at least at the start) a fine J.F. Powers comic feel to it; in ""Say Yes,"" a husband and wife have a kitchen discussion that blends Carver and Cheerer both. Wolff's own distinct voice is hard to find, though. It seems dark, that much you can say: vaguely post-Beat (""Desert Breakdown,"" 1968) or mosaic-violent (""Soldier's Joy""). Yet there are two stories here that seem entirely Wolff's own--and are very striking: ""Leviathan""--a viciously banal two-couple West Coast cocaine party; and (best of all) ""The Poor Are Always With Us""--an utterly odd story about a young Silicon Valley type who finds himself winning three cars on three utterly irrational bets with an unstable stranger. It's a story of ethics without a destination or a definition--and has touches of real and frightening anarchy beneath the adventitiousness. Wolff, in these, seems less like a high-tech narrative-maker, able to reproduce any style and any subject-matter; and while he doesn't exactly seem to have the grounded unease of someone like Andre Dubus, the voice of some kind of moralist is pushing forth here. A mostly too glib yet still promising display by a writer of evident talent and unsure direction.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin