The man who told lies: Tobias Wolff comes from a family of compulsive story-tellers. His earliest work of fiction was a forged cheque. Since he began writing autobiography, however, he has been hailed as one of the great truth-tellers of our time

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ONCE UPON a time, round about 1948, there was a typical American family.

They lived in a brown-shingled farmhouse, with 12 acres and a barn, in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Pop, who came from a grand old Episcopalian family, worked in aircraft design. Mom stayed home and looked after the two boys, Geoffrey (11) and Tobias (three, whom everyone called Toby). They had their home done out with classic early-American furniture, bought from W & J Sloane in New York. They had a Penn Yan dinghy with an Evinrude outboard, a 1937 Ford station wagon (a woodie with cream metal and a dark-brown leather interior) and - Pop being both sporty and an Anglophile - an MG. They had a collie called Shep.

Except that, like all typical American families, this family wasn't typical at all. Arthur Saunders Wolff III, who went by the name Duke, had a drinking problem and rarely held down a job for more than a few months. He also had a truth problem: lies, scams, forgeries, you name it. He invented stories about where he was born, where he was educated and where he had worked. Even the Episcopalianism was a fiction: the Wolffs - though the sons didn't know it until they grew up - were Jewish. Then there was the money problem: Duke was a great believer in credit - or theft, as some of his eternal creditors called it. Small loans didn't interest him, only car-size loans, house-size loans. By the summer of 1949, no grocery store within 20 miles would do business with the Wolffs. All they 'owned' began to be repossessed. It was time to move on. It always had been.

Within two years the family had broken up. Duke was offered a job by Boeing in Seattle, and off he went. Only this time, Geoffrey, now 12, told his mother that he wanted to be with his father, not her. She put him on a plane from Florida to Seattle, not knowing that Duke, three weeks into his new job, had disappeared on a two-week vacation. In time, Geoffrey acquired a kindly stepmother, Alice, whom he loved, while Toby acquired a brutal stepfather, Dwight, whom he hated.

Though apart, and leading very different lives, the brothers were in one respect growing up alike: as chips off the old block.

Geoffrey stole, told lies and developed a taste for fancy cars. Toby, whose life with his mother was much poorer and marginally more law-abiding, also showed a precocious talent for untruth, school misdemeanour and forged cheques. All in all, Geoffrey and Toby seemed to be headed for careers as bank robbers, second-hand car salesmen or politicians. Instead they decided to be writers.

Make-believe was obviously a genetic trait - fiction plagued the family like drug-addiction. But whereas Duke had learnt that to commit himself to paper was to court trouble, his sons used the page to stay out of trouble, to channel their subversive imaginative energies into plots.

Geoffrey's first novel was Bad Debts (1969), about a son's relationship with his fraudster Dad; he went on to publish three more (a new one, Age of Consent, is due from Hodder here next year). Tobias, less expansive, has made his reputation on short stories; there have been three collections; the stories are not baldly personal, but some have suggestive titles - 'The Liar', 'Poaching', 'The Rich Brother'.

But it is as non-fiction writers, as biographers of their own childhoods, that the brothers Wolff have produced their best work. Geoffrey's The Duke of Deception (1980) tells his half of the story, life with father; Tobias's This Boy's Life (1989) tells his half, life with mother. The styles could hardly be more different: Geoffrey's is fluent, excessive, lavish with sources; Toby's is spare, understated, and reads like fiction. But both books are classics of filiality, and each is an expression of its author: Geoffrey, big, garrulous, extrovert; Tobias, quieter, more controlled, more withdrawn.

It is a measure of Tobias Wolff's new-found success, his elevation from an admired writer to an acclaimed one, that This Boy's Life was last year made into a film, directed by Leonardo DiCaprio and starring Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. The book on which the film is based comes from a long line of literature about growing up in America; critics have compared it to Huckleberry Finn, Kerouac's On the Road and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

But there is also something English about its humour - Kipling and Dickens were also mentioned by reviewers - and it's more artful than it seems, a Bildungsroman, a book not just about growing up but about growing up to be a writer. At 10, Tobias rechristened himself 'Jack', after Jack London, and from the first chapter his book has the quality of a great adventure story - the sort of story to make British contemporaries, with their tales of class anguish and sticky adolescence, feel very small: 'It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.'

Tobias Wolff's luck changed with This Boy's Life. Until then he was known, if at all, as one of a group of writers loosely associated with Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Jayne Anne Phillips. Bill Buford, in an issue of his magazine Granta, presented these writers as 'Dirty Realists', whose stories were 'low-rent tragedies about people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances or listen to country and western music . . . They are waitresses in roadside cafes, cashiers in supermarkets, construction workers and un- employed cowboys . . . They drink a lot and are often in trouble . .

.' Other critics said that what the Carver-Ford group had in common was a veneration of 'experience', a Hemingwayesque belief that in order to write one must first have accumulated 'interesting' lived material.

There is an embarrassing, rather wonderful Carver poem called 'My Boat', in which he describes the imaginary boat he's having built for all his friends: 'There'll be a place on board for everyone's stories'. Toby is right up there among the special people, along with Richard (Ford), Jay (McInerney), Hayden (Carruth), Gary (Fisketjohn, publisher of most of them), Amanda (Urban, literary agent for most of them), and Tess (Gallagher, Carver's second wife). There is a sense of happy community about the poem. But in this mafia of talents, among Ray and Richard and Jay and Jayne, Tobias Wolff tended to be overshadowed. Carver was called 'The American Chekhov'. Ford had his breakthrough with The Sportswriter. McInerney enjoyed spectacular early success with his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City.

All that changed in 1989, when Carver, only 50, died of lung cancer and Tobias Wolff, in his own story, found a charge that had been missing from his made-up stories.

Now Wolff has produced another autobiographical classic, In Pharaoh's Army, the story of his experiences as a young officer in Vietnam. Already, before publication, it has been shortlisted for the National Book Awards in the US and for the Esquire Non-Fiction award here. There have been many good books about Vietnam before: Michael Herr's Dispatches, Neil Sheehan's Bright Shining Lie, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciota and more. What makes Wolff's book special is its exactness, its scrupulous honesty, its refusal to preach. It is a short book, but its few incidents carry enormous weight.

When Wolff ends up eating the puppy he has taken such pains to save from a Vietnamese stewpot, or, to teach a lesson to a fellow officer, allows a helicopter to land in such a way that it destroys an entire village, he allows his own story to tell a larger story of war's corrosiveness.

Tobias Wolff writes like a man winning his way towards truth - past the fabrications of his family, his nation and his own mind. Part of the interest in meeting him is to understand how somebody raised on lies should have become one of the great truth-tellers of our time.

TOBIAS WOLFF lives in Syracuse, an hour's flight from New York. I fly up on a beautiful, clear morning, grey housing development turning to forest reds and golds, whole villages and rivers hidden by morning mist - the Catskills and their glory holes. By chance, the New York Times I'm reading carries a review of Tobias Wolff's new book. It isn't an especially generous notice.

The reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, expresses doubts about Wolff's 'self-deprecating anecdotes', his neatness, his 'old-fashioned, naturalistic methods . . . Most of the chapters possess a distinct beginning, middle and end.' It seems to me that the reviewer is criticising exactly what I admire in the book.

Le style, in any case, c'est l'homme. The Tobias Wolff who comes to meet me off the plane is neat, self-deprecating, a bit old-fashioned. He wears jeans and a check shirt. He is leaner about the face, and his moustache is less bushy, than in the old photographs I've seen. He is serious without being intense or humourless. He teaches for one semester a year at the university, and all in all he likes Syracuse, though he never intended to make it home.

'Raymond Carver used to teach here, and I came because of him. It was meant to be a year but we've stayed nearly 15. And I still haven't set a single story here. That's how slowly I work. I know the minute I move the stories will start coming.'

The neighbourhood where he lives with his wife Catherine and family (two boys and a girl) is quiet, suburban, a place to bring up children: the doorstep of the next house is heaped with pumpkins. In the attic, along with his son's weights and karate gear, Tobias has his study, a bright, pine-clad room, deeply quiet. While he makes coffee, I look at the walls: miniature paintings, a poster for the movie of This Boy's Life, photographs of friends and family. Here's Tobias, grinning, with Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.

Here he is again, holding a fish up. And here's Carver again, looking the worse for wear. In the photos, Tobias plays court jester or buddy-to-the-end (his brother says he was named after a Toby jug, and he looks the part).

To the English eye, it looks very macho, very backwoods. I remember a story of Carver and Ford making a pact to kill each other should one turn out to be 'queer', and I wonder how Tobias Wolff feels about his association with this kind of machismo. Un- comfortable, is the answer - and not only because he's sitting astride an upright chair, as if braced or on parade: 'One of the encouraging things about This Boy's Life and now the new book is that women seem to like them. The subjects have to do with a male experience, but I don't want to address half an audience, and in fiction I do find myself writing often from a female point of view, as if from another country.' He might add that he grew up in this other country - that while his father and brother were peripheral figures during his childhood, his mother was an almost constant presence.

He was born in Alabama in 1945, which makes him in theory a 'Southern writer', a label as desirable in America as 'Northern' is here but one that he would find silly. 'We moved when I was very young and kept moving, all over the country: Georgia, New York, Connecticut, Florida, out west. Every six months or so we moved.' As a child, he didn't think this itinerant life at all odd. It was normal, the only reality he knew: 'Camus has that great line about order being chaos grown accustomed to itself, and a child's life is like that, I think.'

Nor, at that stage, did he resent his father. 'When you're a child you're aware of your parents' emotional life but not their character. My father was in my life just enough for me to be attached to him but not for him to influence my growing up. When my parents split up, I didn't see him for five years. Then another seven years. And then another six. Great gaps. I wasn't altogether unhappy about being separated from Geoffrey, because I liked having my mother to myself; it suited him, too, because he was older and wanted out. But I did miss and romanticise my father. He was an imaginary figure, who I perfected in his absence.'

Didn't he sense the kind of man his father was? 'His pretensions, his grand air, those came down to me. But my mother never told me about him: she didn't want to poison the well, to induce mistrust. This reached peculiar levels. I grew up in a very anti-Semitic world - out west I don't think I even knew a Jewish kid - and I would have liked to know that my father's family were Jewish. Even after his death, I felt angry with him about it.'

His mother had a rough time after the separation. She was a bad chooser of men. She tried her best, but she doesn't always seem to have been protective of Tobias, least of all when she handed him over to the new man in her life, the dangerous Dwight. 'No, she didn't always behave well. When she got caught in situations, she couldn't easily get out of them. But though she sometimes hit rock bottom, she wasn't prone to depression or discouragement.

Mostly she responded to adversity with vigour: it brought out a girlishness and toughness. And she gave me confidence. I have friends from homes that were stable and prosperous who're still trying to find someone they can trust, whose parents withheld something or weren't supportive. I never had that.'

His mother is still alive: she remarried in 1964, lives in Florida, and at 79 is active in politics. Friends say that when Tobias sent her his book about the family, which came out nine years after Geoffrey's, her reaction was: 'At least that's it now. I don't have any other sons.' But though anxious about how she'd be perceived, 'when she saw reviewers were talking about her favourably - using words like 'beautiful' and 'indomitable' - she felt better. She'd have been hurt by a portrait that whitewashed her: that would have meant I didn't accept her as she was, that I was denying her.

She'd have seen it as a betrayal.' She was less happy about the film.

Tobias, angry at the inclusion of two gratuitous sex scenes involving his mother, insisted that in the film her name be changed. It was this that offended her. He laughs: 'She wanted to know why it couldn't have been her shown having sex with Robert De Niro.'

For all their failings, his parents in their different ways helped Tobias, who'd been a sickly child, to become a feisty teenager. His boldest move was to apply for a scholarship to the top private establishments in the US. This was some cheek in a kid of disputed academic ability from a nowhere school called Concrete High. Even cheekier were the testimonials he submitted from his teachers about this 'gifted, upright boy' - all of them composed, on filched school notepaper, by himself. But the scam succeeded. One institution, Hill School, offered him a place.

His father's son, then? 'The wheeling and dealing is a family trait, no question. It must have come through the genes, because I didn't know the kind of man my father was. But getting into that school did change my life.

I was not an academic success, but I had a couple of great teachers and was encouraged to think I could take writing seriously.'

In this respect Geoffrey, by then a student at Princeton, also played an important part. He prepared his brother for Hill by setting him daily essays to write ('Blindness and Vision in Oedipus Rex'). He was also 'full of passion for literature - which I'd begun to feel, too. To have someone come along like that and lay hands on you and say 'This is the only life worth living' confirmed me in the direction I was probably already starting to go.'

Brothers who are writers are a rare species: the Jameses (Henry and William), the Manns (Thomas and Heinrich), the Barthelmes (Donald and Frederick), the Theroux (Paul and Alexander), but not many more. What's unusual about the Wolff brothers is that they were separated early on.

They're like a heredity / environment experiment: raised in different ways, they ended up at the same house of fiction. Perhaps this is also why there is comparatively little rivalry between them. Though they don't live close to each other (Geoffrey lives in Jamestown, Rhode Island), they speak on the phone at least once a week; they show each other their work; they like each other.

'We would probably be a lot more competitive if we were working the same beat,' says Tobias. 'But readers have frequently told me that if there weren't cross-references they would never have guessed our books were about the same family. We grew up with very different experiences of this country, its economic conditions, and its education system. And our styles could not be more different. When Geoffrey writes I never think, 'Oh God, I should have done that, it's mine.' '

Easy for Tobias to be generous, since he currently has the hotter reputation. But Geoffrey, too, when I speak to him, emphasises their mutual supportiveness: 'Toby and I have each other's number. Any tone of high solemnity or gravitas will cause the other to burst out laughing. It's a wonderful check. One of the things that has saved me from sourness and envy is that we're so different on the page. But we both took up writing to find some sort of consolation and stability. All I had to do with Toby was prime the pump.'

Despite the priming, Tobias did not flourish at Hill School and he was eventually sent down. He completed his education at a Washington state school, then worked on a ship, dreaming of Melville and of harpooning in the Azores. But he jumped ship and joined the army instead, intent on emulating the writers he admired - Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, Erich Maria Remarque - all of whom had served in the army and drawn on the experience. It was 1965, and the US air force was bombing North Vietnam.

BEFORE talking about In Pharaoh's Army, we break to have lunch in a cheap and cheerful Thai restaurant. We are joined by Michael Herr, who lives just a few miles from Syracuse. Herr is a remarkable figure, an autodidact and polymath, with a fine sense of humour. But also, maybe, a daunting friend to have: his Dispatches is one of the great books about Vietnam, and for Tobias Wolff seeing him during the composition of In Pharaoh's Army must have been a constant reminder of the difficulties of saying something original on the subject. With all the books, films, comics, docum- entaries, oral histories and plays, the US public is Nammed out. What else is there to say? Back in his study, Wolff explains: 'To the extent I had anything fresh to add, it came out of my confrontation with my complicity in what happened. I didn't try to beat up on myself unnecessarily, but I did try to recall as honestly as I could.

'I guess what I was after was an almost physical apprehension of what people undergo in this situation. It was a very corrupt atmosphere over there, and I submitted to it. It was hard not to. Everything was rotten. You ate, drank and breathed it. It was there in the assumptions about our relationships with the Vietnamese, how we waged the war, how we had to wheel and deal to get things we had a right to. After a while, it brutalised.

'My experience over there wasn't as harsh as many people's. It was just something I went through. I didn't want to make it melodramatic. I did have attitudes, but I wanted to make sure they were mine. War fiction has a very powerful set of conventions, and the moment you start to write you find yourself under their tidal pull. The veterans in recovery here have developed their own rhetoric, too, as if everything bad that ever happened to them afterwards happened because of Vietnam. It's their medicine, and way of coping, but I find it self-pitying and sermonising.'

The book begins with an epigraph from Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which suggests that those who write about their war experience may be doing so not only 'for the benefit of unknown heirs' but 'just to get the sight out of their heads'. Was writing In Pharaoh's Army cathartic? 'I didn't clear the sight out of my head, but I did clarify it. I made it somewhat less intimidating, and aligned myself in relation to it a little more truly.

Memory exaggerates - and certain things I'd thought were grave and humourless started to be funny when I wrote about them. So it wasn't just a grim experience writing the book. If there was a tremendous discomfort letting some things out of the bag, there was also a certain satisfaction: being a grown-up involves a lot of posture, with your children and students, but also with your friends. They know you've been in Vietnam, but since you don't talk about it they assume all sorts of things about how you felt and behaved. And finally that becomes suffocating, and you want to get it straight and say: 'No, I wasn't really like that, I was like this.'

'A lot of things came out in the writing. I had forgotten, for example, how nice my father was with me. I came back from Vietnam diminished: I felt less, I felt frightened of myself, I had failed my own ideals. Ironically, that became the meeting ground with him. He had been untruthful, he had been to prison, and I had found that disgraceful. But now I didn't judge him: I was just glad of his company.'

What's unusual about the book is that, for a time at least, the military life seems to have suited Wolff down to the ground. 'I had a solid record of failure behind me. In the army I found here was a thing I could do as well as or even better than other people, and I felt myself coming into my own powers a little. But then it started dawning on me what was happening.

Clausewitz says somewhere that war is for people under 19, because after that age you start to understand the odds of being killed. I also discovered my own limits as a soldier, and reached them before I was expected to: I wasn't, after all, a great success.'

The book's subtitle refers to Vietnam as a 'lost war'. Surely, with so much stuff having been written about it, 'lost' is a misnomer? 'No, it is a lost war. The memory is fading. It doesn't figure in the lives of most young people. They get it from movies - but they're awful movies. Our culture so depends on novelty, it exhausts subjects so quickly, that after a time everything gets lost. I doubt if many teenagers in this country even know there was a Korean war: it's gone.'

THE PERIOD between Vietnam and Syracuse Tobias Wolff describes as 'the wild years'. He drank and drifted. He resumed his tempestuous relationship with an expatriate Russian called 'Vera' (as with 'Dwight', not a real name). He worked on the Washington Post (where Geoffrey, for a time, was books editor), but, 'shy about asking personal questions', made a terrible reporter. He went to California, jobbing as a waiter and night-watchman, leaving his days free for writing. He taught in high school. He got a writing fellowship from Stanford. Then a post in Arizona.

But before all this, he came to England. It was supposed to be a holiday, but he met the historian Martin Gilbert, and next thing applied to do a degree at Oxford, and with intense tuition passed the necessary entrance exams. From 1969-72, the boy who had flunked his schooling was an undergraduate at Hertford College: another bizarre part of his story. And yet there was also something inevitable about it, his brother Geoffrey having studied in Eastbourne and Cambridge, and their father being such an Anglophile (those oh-so-English names: Arthur, Geoff, Toby).

'One of the attractions of Oxford was that I didn't have to answer questions about Vietnam: people knew, but they had too much discretion to push me to talk about it. I didn't have many English undergraduate friends: I was 24, and they were younger. I'm aware that Martin Amis and Julian Barnes were there round then, but I didn't meet them, though I did meet Craig Raine, who was a graduate student. Most of my friends were expatriate Greeks, and Americans. Clinton was there, of course. And Strobe Talbott, who's now deputy secretary of state, was a good friend of both of us. I know I met Clinton, but that's all. Maybe I passed him the joint he didn't inhale - whereas I did inhale it, and that's why I don't remember him.' All this might have been material - how many autobiographers would have resisted 'Bill Clinton and I at Oxford'? - but Tobias Wolff does resist it, because This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army are a very special kind of autobiography: not gossipy, more like fiction. There is a reserve about the books, as there is about the man himself. He seems, in many ways, the last person to write a candid account of his own life. 'Toby was never a diner-out on his childhood stories,' says Geoffrey. 'He knew he was sitting on a goldmine of material, and he kept sitting until the pressure got too great. It was inevitable that one day he'd write about it.'

But to Tobias Wolff it did not feel inevitable: 'I never thought my life could be a story. I had written autobiographical stories, but I used the fiction to hide behind. Then I started setting down memories before they were lost, to put them in the bank for my kids to read. But as some things do, they took on a life of their own and I allowed myself to be carried along.

'I had always felt there was something indecorous about it: Auden has a line about writing an autobiography being like a leper showing his sores in the marketplace. But you can bring as much art to it as to writing a poem or novel. And in truth, I don't think there's any more immodesty in writing about yourself than in writing fiction.'

AS WE come down from the attic and walk the streets of Tobias Wolff's neighbourhood, I think of the passage which ends In Pharaoh's Army, with young Toby in the Bodleian Library coming upon a passage from the Sermon on the Mount - the passage about the foolish man building his house upon the sand and the wise man building his upon a rock: I was in a country far from my own, and even farther from the kind of life I'd once seemed destined for.

If you'd asked me how I got there I couldn't have told you. The winds that had blown me here could have blown me anywhere, even from the face of the earth. It was unaccountable. But I was here, in this moment, which all the other moments of my life had conspired to bring me to. And with this moment came these words, served on me like a writ. I copied out my translation in plain English, and thought that, yes, I would do well to build my house upon a rock, whatever that meant.

Unusual among his generation of writers, Tobias Wolff is a churchgoer. He doesn't talk about it, and even when his writing takes on a religious tone, as above, there's an abiding scepticism: 'build my house upon a rock, whatever that meant.' But spirituality is part of the seriousness he's grown into.

Where he lives is pretty serious, too. It's quiet, stable, rock-like respectable, the kind of neighbourhood some writers would feel uncomfortable in (because too comfortable) but right for him, whose early life was mostly sand blowing in the wind, who can't afford the bourgeois writer's contempt for solidity. It leaves him with a problem, though: his early career was staked on 'experience', and now he has put that life behind him.

'I'm the kind of writer who needs to have done what I've done. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend otherwise. Without the drama of my growing up, and the distancing sense of humour I learnt from my mother to look at it with, I'd be a different writer. But I am now suspicious of the cult of experience. Flannery O'Connor said that anyone who survives adolescence has enough material to write about. If you can see what's happening, and light it up, that's what matters.

'I'm all done with non-fiction. Perhaps I shouldn't say that: never say never. I could imagine trying to do something more like Mailer's Executioner's Song. But I can certainly promise that the world has seen the last of the inside story of Tobias Wolff. Now I have a quiet life I'm going to have to rely a little more on my imagination.'

'In Pharaoh's Army' is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 14.99.

(Photographs omitted)