Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is one of the most highly respected writers of short fiction to have achieved prominence in the 1980’s. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 19, 1945, the son of Arthur and Rosemary (Loftus) Wolff, and grew up in the state of Washington, where he and his mother had moved some six years after his parents’ divorce in 1951. Wolff left his home in rural Washington to attend preparatory school at the Hill School in Pennsylvania but failed to graduate from that institution. After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Special Forces, serving from 1964 to 1968, during which time he served in Vietnam, Wolff earned a bachelor’s degree from Oxford University in 1972 and a master’s degree from Oxford in 1975. He spent the 1975-1976 academic year at Stanford University, having won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing. He earned a master’s degree from Stanford in 1978, the same year in which he received his first National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Like many other contemporary writers, Wolff has supported himself by teaching. He has served on the faculties of Stanford University, Goddard College, Arizona State University, and Syracuse University and has been a reporter for The Washington Post. Wolff published his first collection of stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, in 1981. The book received exceptional reviews, and the following year it earned for Wolff the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction. In the stories’ range of characters, situations, and literary techniques, this collection revealed Wolff to be a writer not merely of promise but of manifest achievement as well.
Wolff’s second book, the novella The Barracks Thief, confirmed his narrative gifts. Originally a novel-length manuscript, it was subjected to intense revision that eliminated inessential characters as well as unnecessary passages of exposition and that introduced greater complexity of narrative technique–including Wolff’s startling yet successful shifts from third-person to first-person points of view. Widely admired by reviewers, The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985 as the best work of fiction published during the preceding year. The year 1985 also saw the publication of Wolff’s second collection of stories, Back in the World. Frequently set in either California or the Pacific Northwest, all the stories in this volume use third-person points of view that tend to distance the reader from the characters. Although this collection did not generate as enthusiastic a response from reviewers as did Wolff’s first two books, it continued to develop a number of his characteristic themes and situations.
Since the publication of Back in the World, Wolff has also published The Barracks Thief, and Selected Stories, a volume that reprints six of the twelve stories from his first collection, The Night in Question, another short-story collection, and This Boy’s Life, an autobiographical memoir that appeared in 1989. In vivid, often humorous, sometimes painful scenes, Wolff’s memoir recounts his experiences from age ten through enrollment at Hill School. With utter candor, he records the duplicity with which he created an assortment of identities for himself and describes the difficult relationship he had with his stepfather. Among the book’s major strengths are its honesty, its hopefulness amid disillusionment, and its repudiation of self-pity.
This Boy’s Life was made into a film starring Robert De Niro. Although Wolff disliked the film’s gratuitous sex scene, he had little other criticism, stating that the film reinvented him the way he had reinvented himself from memories. In Pharoah’s Army, a memoir of Wolff’s Vietnam years, received mixed reviews. A few considered it pale compared with This Boy’s Life, but most critics hailed In Pharoah’s Army as an unflinching depiction of a young man’s struggle to come to terms with himself. Nonetheless, the book was a National Book Award finalist and a nominee for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for biography.
In an essay on the fiction of Paul Bowles, Wolff describes the characters of Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky (1949) as “refugees of a sort peculiar to our age: affluent drifters dispossessed spiritually rather than materially.” The same might be said of many of Wolff’s characters. Against what Wolff calls, in the same essay, “that voice in each of us that sings the delight of not being responsible, of refusing the labor of choice by which we create ourselves,” Wolff seeks to bring his characters into the realm of responsibility, where questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, are central. His stories–written in a style marked by clarity, grace, and an unpretentious metaphorical richness–take their place in the tradition of realism, not among the metafictions of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and John Barth.
Some of Wolff’s fiction assumes the shape of moral parable, as in the title story of his first collection and in “The Rich Brother,” the concluding story in Back in the World, with its fablelike opening and its affirmation of the responsibilities that brotherhood imposes. Other stories, such as “Next Door” and “The Liar,” the opening and closing pieces in his first book, culminate in visionary glimpses of a world that impinges on ordinary reality but rarely coincides with it, a world of tranquillity, love, and compassion. Yet despite the clear ethical concerns of his stories, Wolff often complicates the moral judgments of his readers. In The Barracks Thief, for example, the novella’s shifting narrative perspectives enlist the readers’ sympathy for Lewis, the thief. In “Coming Attractions,” a teenage girl who makes a practice of shoplifting and who keeps whatever lost belongings she finds in the movie theater where she works, is shown, at story’s end, struggling selflessly to raise a bicycle from a swimming pool so that she can give it to her younger brother. Such unanticipated acts of generosity occur regularly in Wolff’s fiction, suggesting the mysterious depths of human motivation and the regenerative potential of people’s capacity for change. Although Wolff’s characters are frequently flawed, directionless human beings, Wolff presents many of them in situations in which they discover unsuspected or obscured dimensions of themselves, as does the protagonist of “The Other Miller.” Wolff’s stories, grounded in their author’s belief that “storytelling is one of the sustaining arts,” thus serve to evoke moral and spiritual alternatives to the spiritlessness of so much of contemporary life. They affirm the possibilities of renewal. Wolff’s themes of human frailty, possible regeneration, and moral imperatives reflect a Christian perspective, a vision that haunts rather than pervades his work.