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by Tobias Wolff

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-40218-7
Publisher: Knopf

 A surprisingly uneven assemblage that, nevertheless, hits several astonishing highs. These 14 tales in Wolff's third collection (Back in the World, 1985; In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, 1981) deal variously with combative family relationships, the sources of violence and neurosis lying just beneath suburban and quotidian surfaces, and memories of the war in Vietnam (e.g., ``Casualty'' and ``The Other Miller'') that possess and transform those who served and suffered there. Wolff is at his weakest when his stories seem too nakedly personal (as in ``Powder'' and ``Firelight''), or when they're too clearly the products of controlling ideas--such as the unbelievable tale ``A Bullet in the Brain,'' in which a vitriolic book-reviewer can't help heckling the bank robber who's holding him at gunpoint, and is shot to death. Forget these stories, but do not miss: ``Flyboys,'' a portrayal of unstable teenage friendship in which Wolff brilliantly evokes the controlled emotions of a boy who resists being pulled into the orbit of a suffering family; ``Mortals,'' a snaky, surprising piece about a composer of newspaper obituaries who's fired when he fails to check on a reported death, and undergoes a strange encounter with the man whom he had, as it were, pronounced dead; ``Smorgasbord,'' a charming comedy involving horny prep-school students, the alluring stepmother of a dictator's son, and the process of shedding youth's romantic illusions; and especially ``The Chain,'' which opens with a terrifyingly vivid description of a man rescuing his small daughter from a vicious dog, then slowly, deftly traces the vengeful ``chain'' of violent acts that result from his reluctant complicity in a plot to punish the dog's callous owners. This tale is a dazzler, plotted with really remarkable ingenuity. Understatement, irony, and surprising juxtapositions are the key ingredients of these generally accomplished and resonant fictions--the best of which are certainly among the most accomplished being written in our time. (First printing of 30,000)