An impressive range of contemporary experience is distilled into crisp, urgent little dramas in this story collection from Wolff (Old School, 2003, etc.).
The book features 21 previously published stories and ten new stories. A number of the entries, Wolff notes, have been slightly revised for the purposes of the collection. Troubled families are a recurring subject: “The Liar,” for example, concerns a teenaged boy whose compulsive prevarications are both defense mechanisms and strategies for achieving a necessary maturity, and the beautifully paced, Cheever-like “The Rich Brother” depicts the frustrating bond between two contrasting adult siblings. Wolff reaches convincingly beyond the quotidian in a sinuously plotted tale about three men (“Hunters in the Snow”) whose taunting horseplay whiplashes into an explosion of rage and violence, and an equally tense account of an underachieving career soldier whose screw-ups are echoed in varied relationships with his buddies, superior officers and married girlfriend (“Soldier’s Joy”). Even when comic detail predominates, these are dark visions, animated and accelerated by a sense of ever-present danger and general unconcern (e.g., a hitchhiker passed by cars bearing numerous different state license plates “felt like the whole country had turned its back on him”). Both the new and old stories display Wolff’s versatility: his mastery of oddly angled viewpoints (“Her Dog”); an incisive understanding of how inchoate teenage emotion can distract and alienate (“Deep Kiss”—which compares quite interestingly with “The Liar”); and a potent grasp of how lives replete with event and adventure may expand generously when touched by others’ lives (“A Mature Student”).
Richard Yates, Raymond Carver and Robert Stone are the modern masters whom Wolff most resembles. Like their best work, his own exhibits classic richness and depth, and it’s built to last.