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  • Our Story Begins
  • Written by Tobias Wolff
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  • Our Story Begins
  • Written by Tobias Wolff
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New and Selected Stories

Written by Tobias WolffAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tobias Wolff

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List Price: $12.99

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On Sale: March 25, 2008
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26880-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

This collection of stories—twenty-one classics followed by ten potent new stories—displays Tobias Wolff's exquisite gifts over a quarter century.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Bullet in the Brain

Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a POSITION CLOSED sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. "Oh, that's nice," one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more."

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. "Damned unfair," he said. "Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions."

She stood her ground. "I didn't say it was tragic," she said. "I just think it's a pretty lousy way to treat your customers."

"Unforgivable," Anders said. "Heaven will take note."

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that her friend was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, the other customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard's neck. The guard's eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. "Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat."

"Oh, bravo," Anders said. "'Dead meat.'" He turned to the woman in front of him. "Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes."

She looked at him with drowning eyes.

The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard's wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades, then took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness. "Buzz him in," his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a plastic bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, "Whose slot is that?"

Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she'd been talked to. He nodded. "Mine," she said.

"Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag."

"There you go," Anders said to the woman in front of him. "Justice is done."

"Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?"

"No," Anders said.

"Then shut your trap."

"Did you hear that?" Anders said. "'Bright boy.'" Right of out The Killers."

"Please, be quiet," the woman said.

"Hey, you deaf or what?" The man with the pistol walked over to Anders and poked the weapon into his gut. "You think I'm playing games?"

"No," Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue and rawly red rimmed. The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.

"You like me, bright boy?" he said. "You want to suck my dick?"

"No," Anders said.

"Then stop looking at me."

Anders fixed his gaze on the man's shiny wing-tip shoes.

"Not down there. Up there." He stuck the pistol under Anders's chin and pushed it upward until he was looking at the ceiling.

Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and gilt scrollwork over the tellers' cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again—a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders's eye was Zeus and Europa—portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droppy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there'd been a caption bubbling out of his mouth, it would have said HUBBA HUBBA.

"What's so funny, bright boy?"

"Nothing."

"You think I'm comical? You think I'm some kind of clown?"

"No."

"You think you can fuck with me?"

"No."

"Fuck with me again, you're history. Capiche?"

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche—oh, God, capiche," and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right through the head.



The bullet smashed Anders's skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and lost since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at nine hundred feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared with the synaptic lightning that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of time to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, "passed before his eyes."

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall. 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. 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 appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so he could give himself the shivers at will—not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien," or "My God, I heard this day," or "All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?" None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, "I should have stabbed him in his sleep."

He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the dust jacket of a novel not long after they graduted, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.

Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, "Lord have mercy!" He did not remember deliberately crashing his father's car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an antiwar rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle's cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they've chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. "Shortshop," the boy says. "Short's the best position they is." Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle's cousin repeat what he's just said, though he knows better than to ask. The other's will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all—it's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those two final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won't be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talen and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.


From the Hardcover edition.
Tobias Wolff

About Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff - Our Story Begins

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Tobias Wolff lives in Northern California and teaches at Stanford University. He has received the Rea Award for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Praise | Awards

Praise

"Unforgettable…. Wolff's voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing." —The New York Times Book Review"A volume that belongs on everybody's shelf. . . . Wolff conjures stories that etch your memory—which is to say, they become a part of you." —Los Angeles Times Book Review“It's impossible to read Tobias Wolff and not come away transformed. . . . [He] fully exposes the good, bad, and ugly about what it means to be alive in this day and age.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer“Tender, dazzling, heart-stopping fiction from a master of deep truths and unexpected turns. . . . Intensely pleasurable.” —O, The Oprah Magazine “The complexity of emotion [he] evokes within the space of a few pages, from hilarity to heartbreak, is often nothing short of astonishing.” —Rocky Mountain News“Sublime art. . . . Wolff's alchemy in these stories is oddly and deeply transformative. They inevitably rise above their ostensible subject into some universal terrain [with] intelligence, compassion and a radical openness to life's unfathomable surprises.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Cause for celebration. . . . There's no one else practicing the form with as much warm devotion or cool mastery.” —The Washington Post“Wolff is a superb storyteller who makes almost anything he touches ring true.” —Newsweek “For thirty years Wolff has been publishing stories that feel yanked from the jagged mouth of real experience and turned into art…The entire moral crux of life pivots on an instant…These stories remind a reader how powerful and important good stories are, especially ones that look unblinkingly into our wicked, yearning hearts.” —John Freeman, Sunday Star-Ledger“Adept short stories–whole worlds evoked in just a few pages–[with] the heft and density, the unexpected beauty, of Alice Munro, of Chekhov.” —Lisa Jennifer Selzman, Houston Chronicle “Wolff reminds us again and again why we still return to fiction for what we need to know about how people live their lives.” —Daniel Torday, Esquire "Restrained, droll, and nearly flawless in structure, Tobias Wolff's keen-edged stories often concern confused folks who want to do the right thing, or at least find a way to allow themselves to believe that they're doing the fith thing...Ten of [these] stories are new, and they're more accomplished than ever." —Karen Karbo, Entertainment Weekly, (Grade A)“[Tobias Wolff] writes with the exacting precision of a bombmaker. With steady hands and sinister ambitions, he crafts his best fictions in miniature, detonating his characters’ lives in the time it takes to read a paragraph, crafting tales that turn on a single, diabolical sentence…Wolff’s stories are filled with such distillations of intense, life-altering moments, and Our Story Begins presents the best examples from his past quarter century of writing.” —Joe Woodward, Poets & Writers“Wolff dexterously probes, in immaculately clear prose, the core of ordinary people’s passions and vulnerabilities.” —Brad Hooper, Booklist“[Our Story Begins] exhibits classic richness and depth, and it’s built to last…An impressive range of contemporary experience is distilled into crisp, urgent little dramas.” —Kirkus Reviews

Awards

WINNER 2008 The Story Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"Unforgettable. . . . Wolff's voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing."
The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, a writer whose works have evoked comparison to such masters of the short story as Hemingway, Salinger, Raymond Carver, and William Trevor.

About the Guide

Our Story Begins brings together ten dazzling new stories and twenty-one classics by Tobias Wolff. Written over the course of thirty years, the stories portray soldiers and academics fraught with doubts about their place in the world; husbands and wives struggling with marital disappointments and domestic discontents; children estranged from their parents' and siblings locked in mutual antipathy. Life-long friends discover uncomfortable truths about one another and themselves, ordinary events suddenly spiral out of control, and unexpected temptations undermine previously unquestioned moral codes. Together, these stories display the distinctive blend of comedy and tragedy, warmth and melancholy that permeates Wolff's recent novel, Old School, as well as his acclaimed memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.

About the Author

Tobias Wolff is the author of seven previous books and the editor of The Vintage Book of American Short Stories. Among his honors are the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award, both for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives in northern California and teaches at Stanford University.

Discussion Guides

1. The majority of the stories are told in the third-person. Is the narrator's voice for the most part sympathetic, neutral, or distant? What techniques does Wolff use to draw you into the characters' lives and the events depicted in the stories? Discuss how the conversations between characters, their own musings and observations, and the detailed descriptions of the way they look and dress bring their personalities into focus.

2. Soldiers and veterans are the focus of "Soldier's Joy," "Desert Breakdown, 1968," "The Other Miller," and "Awaiting Orders," and make appearances in several other stories. What do the stories demonstrate about the effects of the military experience on individuals? How do the various characters deal with the difficulty of balancing the demands (or expectations) placed upon them and their own impulses and ethical standards? In what ways does military service provide a rationale for unacceptable or aberrant behavior? Do the more recent stories ("Awaiting Orders" and "A Mature Student") mark a change in Wolff's ideas about the military? If you have read In Pharaoh's Army include this in your discussion.

3. Lying or hiding the truth is a recurring theme in Our Story Begins: "The Liar" deals directly with a young man who makes up stories about himself and his mother; in "Two Boys and a Girl" a boy convinces himself that betraying his best friend is reasonable; and the husband in "Say Yes" equivocates when discussing interracial marriage with his wife. Discuss the different forms of lying Wolff explores. In which stories do characters lie to themselves about their own motivations or feelings? In which stories do characters lie to protect or please other people? What rewards do lying and/or betrayal bring to the characters? What are the negative consequences of their deceptions?

4. In "Deep Kiss," "Down to Bone," and "Her Dog," memories of the past, as well as imaginative fantasies, provide comfort and a release from the regrets that haunt the characters. What do these stories convey about the influence of the hopes and promise of the past on the way people cope with, perceive, and perhaps distort the reality of the present?

5. Wolff explores the relationship between parents and children in many of the stories. How do stories like "Flyboys," "Sanity," "Powder," and "Nightingale" illustrate the complicated emotional connections between parents and children? Does Wolff portray their conflicts and misunderstandings in a balanced, sympathetic way? How would you characterize Wolff's view of the power parents exercise, knowingly or inadvertently, on their offspring?

6. "The Rich Brother" and "The Night in Question" feature young men searching unsuccessfully for spiritual meaning in their lives. What similar traits do Donald ("The Rich Brother") and Frank ("The Night in Question") exhibit? What do the reactions of their siblings to their idiosyncratic behavior reveal about the mixture of love, guilt, and frustration that often informs relationships within a family? Why is Pete unable to accept and reconcile with Donald, while Frances is sure she can "bring [Frank] around" [p. 249]?

7. The narrator in "Next Door" says about his neighbors, "I think about the life they have" and how it goes on and on, until it seems like the life they were meant to live. Everybody always says how great it is that human beings are so adaptable, but I don't know. . . . It's awful what we get used to" [p. 19]. To what degree do the characters Wolff depicts passively accept (or adapt to) the circumstances of their lives? What happens to characters that break the rules or defy old patterns? Consider such stories as "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," "Nightingale," and "Down to Bone" in your discussion.

8. "Bullet in the Brain" presents the surprising thoughts and images running through the head of a dying man. Discuss the significance of the narrator's declaration that, "It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall?" [p. 266]? How does it relate to the other stories in the collection?

9. What does the collection's title Our Story Begins imply about Wolff's approach to writing short stories? In what ways do the stories embody the sense that life's experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, are part of a continuum? Do the characters' histories and their reactions to the situations in which they find themselves provide insights into what the future might bring? Choose several stories and share your thoughts about what happens next.

10. Wolff has said, "If there's a moral quality to my work, I suppose it has to do with will and the exercise of choice within one's will. The choices we make tend to narrow down a myriad of opportunities to just a few, and those choices tend to reinforce themselves in whatever direction we've started to go, including the wrong direction" (The Believer, May 2005). How do stories like "The Chain," "Hunters in the Snow," "A White Bible," and "The Benefit of the Doubt" incorporate and illuminate Wolff's statement? In these and other stories, are there moments of decision that are particularly telling or powerful?

Suggested Readings

Charles Baxter, A Relative Stranger; Anton Chekhov, Stories of Anton Chekhov; Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From; Louise Erdrich, The Red Convertible; Richard Ford, Vintage Ford; Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time; Thom Jones, The Pugilist at Rest; Richard Russo, The Whore's Child and Other Stories; William Trevor, The Collected Stories.

Tobias Wolff books available in Vintage Paperback:
Old School; The Night in Question; In Pharaoh's Army; Back in the World; The Vintage Book of American Short Stories (editor).

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