Life and death, or vice versa

THE NIGHT IN QUESTION by Tobias Wolff Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
In his acclaimed memoir of small-town American childhood, This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff recalls an incident in which he and some friends get drunk and attempt to steal petrol from a neighbouring farm. Sent to make amends, they find that the family is desperately poor and Wolff is aware that "the real harm was in their knowing that someone could come upon them in this state, and pause to do them injury". Despite this, he cannot bring himself to apologise. Typically, he concludes "I understood some of this and felt the rest."

This idea of a coefficient relationship between insight and ignorance crops up often in both Wolff's autobiographical and fictional work. He is too good and ambitious a writer to be satisfied with identifying the didactic moment or with directing it one way. Instead, he concentrates on its more interesting side, not insight but ignorance. Strength is similarly given less attention than weakness, and so an epiphany or act of heroism surprise and move us all the more.

The Night in Question is Wolff's first collection of stories for ten years. It is the same world as that of his memoir, of grand plans and pitiful outcomes, not so much old-fashioned as stuck in its ways. The space and mobility of America seem to be there largely to remind people of their own limitations and inefficiencies. Cars break down, trucks get stuck in the mud, roads are closed, children have nothing to do.

In this world, practical jokes are a matter of life and death, or vice versa. The book opens with "Mortals" in which a journalist putting together obituaries for a local paper finds himself caught out when he prints one about a man who is very much alive. Everyone goes half-heartedly through the motions and the journalist is duly sacked. He ends up having lunch with the subject of the offending piece, pinning down what really happened but letting it go. Like Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe in The Sportswriter, he is worn down by his own percipience, cut off but able to play a given part.

Wolff compresses situations to explore insight as a source of estrangement. The girl and her stepmother in "Sanity" are thrown together by her father's breakdown. The woman regales her with stories of sex but her revelations make the girl view her with greater detachment. "Firelight" concerns a boy moving with his mother to another boarding house in another new town where they play at house-hunting. On one visit, the boy finds himself entranced by the family, the fire and the possibilities of security and comfort. Not only does he come away less convinced by his mother but also grows up unable to believe that any real home will not also be snatched away from him.

Like Chekhov, Wolff enjoys the formalities of moral dilemmas. In "Casualty", a soldier in Vietnam feels compelled to put himself in danger to support a friend, and is then relieved when the friend is fatally injured and removed from the scene. "The Chain" is a domino-like series of events in which a dog's chain breaks, a girl is bitten, her father seeks revenge, and tragic consequences ensue. In the title story, Frank repeats an evangelical sermon to his sister, a fable about a man who has to choose between allowing a train to crash or his child to die. This glutinous melodrama becomes Frank's way of talking about their violent father. He needs to borrow a voice to do it.

Several stories conclude with a walk-on part that takes us out of the moment into the larger world in which it has been fixed. The journalist watches a mime artist imitating a man in the street, like a mocking shadow. A nurse puts the hand of the dying soldier in that of his neighbour. She begs drugs for herself and dreams of tropical cruises. It is like Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts": "... how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster ..."

The tone of Wolff's prose is remarkable and difficult to pin down: a combination of agony, formality and wit. His clusters of adjectives travel further than most and the book is full of fine details: "The whole house set him on edge: the pictures, the matching colonial furniture, the single bookshelf full of condensed books. It was like a house Russian spies would practise being American in."

The characters in this collection fail to be properly either good or bad. They play with notions of danger or happiness and once in a while someone stops being careful and takes it all seriously and things fall apart. Wolff's own balancing of engagement and observation, of declaration and the unexplained, gives us a wonderfully big and complicated picture of this precarious state.