Wolff is a fantastic writer of short stories – but I’ve chosen this story as illustrative of something that runs across all great story writers. The short story form gives you a great deal of freedom. You don’t need to worry about anything except the thing you are writing now. You don’t need length, development, incident. But you do need to stick the knife in, and then you need to twist. Wolff does this, and does it again.
First published in In the Garden of North American Martyrs, WW Norton, 1982; collected in Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, Bloomsbury, 2008. Available online here
The last paragraph of this – the final, split-second thought (of a childhood baseball game in the heat of summer) as a bullet shatters through his skull – is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful things I’ve ever read.
First published in The New Yorker, September 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Night in Question, Bloomsbury, 1995
“In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce.”
First published in The Night in Question. Read online
Around 2000, when I started writing stories seriously, I discovered, in a fated and improbable sort of way, The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, among a pile of unwanted books dumped in the hallway of the block of flats where I was living. This anthology turned out to be my route into the work of so many wonderful writers – a number of whom are on this list – exactly as an anthology should. Tobias Wolff was one of them. In 2008 I went to a conference in Cork, mainly because Wolff was going to be there, reading his work. My own collection was about to come out and I was carrying the manuscript around in my bag, with some idea that I would find a way to give it to him, following which he would read it and insist on providing a quote for the cover that would celebrate my genius. In the event, someone did introduce me to him, but I bottled the moment. Instead he signed my copy of his collected stories ‘with best wishes for your own work’ which in the end felt good enough.
In ‘An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke’, an academic is obliged to attend a conference with a flashy colleague that he despises, in part because of his ‘unnecessarily large moustache’. In the end it is Brooke who behaves poorly and he and we are left wondering exactly what sort of man he is. With all very good or great writers it is extremely difficult to say what it is that they do or how they do it – certainly without making a fool of yourself. In this story it is something about the exquisitely achieved tone, the gap between the narrative voice and Brooke’s own, the way the relative plainness of the language and directness of the storytelling belie a vast understanding of moral and human complexity. Something like that.
First published in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Ecco Press, 1981) and anthologised in The Granta Book of the American Short Story.