Episodes of casualty

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff, Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99
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Tobias Wolff is writer-in-residence at Syracuse University in New York State. This is surprising. Syracuse, you'll recall, is the place where the English department is so politically correct that the phone book is a set text while Shakespeare study is optional. Why on earth have they hired a distinguished short-story writer like Wolff instead of some crackhead graffiti artist? Perhaps one of those wealthy foundations, whom Wolff thanks for their support in a prefatory note to his new collection, had some say in the matter.

At any rate it is a job you might prefer to avoid if you made much in the way of normal commercial gain from writing. Similarly the narrator of the first story here, "Mortals", having published "a few stories in literary journals that nobody read, including me", becomes a newspaper obituarist. "After four months of this duty I was full of the consciousness of death. It soured me. It puffed me up with morbid snobbery, the feeling that I knew a secret nobody else had even begun to suspect."

As it happens, our man gets the sack for writing an obit on someone who phones in the news of his own death for reasons of vanity and then complains so that no one will guess at his subterfuge. Elsewhere in the collection, though, actual unexaggerated demises are a shade too prevalent, almost as if a morbid snobbery were indeed at work. A novel can include death and still be about much else besides, but a death in a short story becomes the dominant, shaping force.

In "Flyboys", two ingenious small boys dig their friend's stepfather's pickup out of some mud when it gets bogged down. Looming over this account, for no terrifically apparent purpose, is a Salingeresque recollection of the friend's wonderfully gifted, charismatic older brother, killed on a motorbike years before.

In "The Other Miller", an army private is told his mother has died and given compassionate leave. He sets off, smugly certain the message was meant for another man in the battalion who shares the same name and initials. "The Army screws up their mail all the time, and now they've screwed this up." He is happy to exploit his unexpected liberty anyway, till leaving camp he realises "a simple truth. His mother is also going to die." And we are rather led to assume that in fact she has.

Miller is a present-day volunteer, who signed up to punish his mother for remarrying after his father was boiled to death in a bizarre accident. "Casualty" deals with conscripts in Vietnam, one of whom, irked by a new officer and sarcastic by nature, keeps volunteering for dangerous duty: "Love to.... Really, sir? Can I?"And keeps getting sent, since the officer has no sense of humour.

Obviously, with just a few weeks of his tour left, the wisecracker has to get killed, but to make things still more ironic Wolff has it happen while he's on routine duty in a supposedly safe area. This creaks ever so slightly. It ought to creak like a falling redwood, but Wolff's writing is measured and deft enough to muffle the effect.

In "Bullet in the Brain" - something of a giveaway title, one can't help feeling - there's another character who has trouble keeping his mouth shut, "a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed", who finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery and taunts the raiders for their cliched use of tough-guy language. Probably in life he'd be pistol-whipped but here, of course, he gets shot, and dies recalling the poetic grammatical slip a friend once made during a baseball game.

The best stories seem to be the non-death ones dealing with early youth: "Smorgasbord", a prep-school story with an acutely rendered adolescent sense of "pure possibility"; and "Powder", in which a father drives through snowdrifts to deliver his son to his tetchy estranged wife on time and so save his access rights. "Like a speedboat, only better", thinks the son. "You can't go downhill in a boat...if you haven't driven fresh powder, you haven't driven." But there are several others which also repay in spades the minimal effort of reading Wolff's well-turned, economical prose.