Tobias Wolff is a strange writer whose work is so absolutely clear and hypnotic that a reader wants to take it apart and find some simple way to describe why it works so beautifully (Tobias Wolff, This Boys Life [back cover]).
Although sometimes taking place in such foreign locations as Vietnam, Wolffs stories are predominantly based on banal situations and people. The magic in his writing though is the fact he draws the reader into the story at all times. He does so by connecting his characters and their conflicts to the reader, be it through quirks, qualities or quandaries. Wolff perfects these concepts by writing in his own lucid, terse style. The tales in Wolffs [books] are seamless, their characters relentlessly ordinary (Joan Smith, Spelunking).
Through personal experience and careful observation Wolff gathers the necessary insight to piece together novels that clearly dealt with the normal man and woman, their problems, and their accomplishments. Wolffs stories do not consist of big drug deals or heated love triangles, but instead of prosaic situations. One such is when Wolffs older brother sent him some writing he had done and Wolff considered turning it into his English teacher as his, but dismissed the idea knowing he would never get away with it (Tobias Wolff, This Boys Life 200-201).
Although occurring in hackneyed settings, many of Wolffs characters find themselves in situations they would never have thought possible: The characters of these stories are basically decent people who discover that they ” re capable of things they never expected – and can never again believe themselves worthy of being considered decent. (Charles Taylor, Sneak Peeks: The Night In Question).
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For example, in the short story Hunters in the Snow, by Wolff, a group of three middle-aged men are hunting in the woods when they come across a farm.
Two men go inside and come out later and one is acting a little strange The strange one says, I hate that tree, and shoots a tree. Next, he approaches the farmers dog, and says, I hate that dog, and shoots the dog. Finally, he approaches one of his friends, nick-named Tubs, (for chastising purposes) and says, I hate you Tubs. The next moment Tubs fires upon him, delivering a nasty stomach wound. They quickly race to the hospital, and as they are driving the third friend informs Tubs that the farmer had asked him to shoot the dog, seeing that he was old and miserable (Tobias Wolff, In the Garden of North American Martyrs).
So, this example demonstrates how Wolff can take an ordinary setting (hunting in the woods) and turn it into an extraordinary event for the three men participating in it.
Wolff enjoys touching on the humor of the ordinary person and the situations they must deal with, such as the story of Dog Stew. Dog Stew was the name given to a puppy Wolff had rescued from the hungry Vietnamese soldiers during the war. He cared for the puppy, minimally, but it usually ended up being more of a nuisance because of the harassment he received from the soldiers, who would rub their bellies and lick their lips whenever they saw him. On Wolffs last night in Vietnam, he was having dinner with some of his good friends from the war, and he was served a bowl of soup. He said it was very good and asked what it was, and his friends only replied by rubbing their stomachs and smacking their lips. Although slightly appalled, Wolff knew inside him that it was destined to happen how could it not, with a name like Dog Stew These kind of comical and ironic situations are copious in Wolffs books, and make them all the easier to read.
All in all, Wolffs portrayal of banal situations and people is the driving force behind his main strength as a writer, drawing the reader into the story. When reading Wolffs books, the reader tends to feel drawn towards the characters and the problems they face. This magnetism is a combination of Wolffs lucid writing style and choice of subject matter (prosaic people and places), woven together in the way only Wolff can do it. Wolff uses three main elements to connect the character to the reader: quirks, qualities, and quandaries. Wolffs books are packed full of quirks; it is impossible to turn a page without seeing one.
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The author of this document can relate to many of the quirks presented in Wolffs characters, which is what draws him and all the other readers of Wolff into the story. For instance, one morning in Vietnam I got hungry and made a sandwich I became aware of my hands and what they were doing. How strange it is to spread mayonnaise. It can be the strangest thing youve ever done (Tobias Wolff, In Pharaohs Army 134).
Not meaning to diverge from the main subject, but the author of this paper knows exactly what it is like to experience the oddity of such menial events as spreading mayonnaise; they are really weird! Ok, returning to the point at hand, quirks a large factor in Tobias Wolffs writing and are the main force behind drawing the reader into the story. The second element is qualities.
All characters have qualities, but Wolff chooses specific ones in order to make the reader further feel as if he / she is inside the story. Wolff uses a wide range of qualities, but their goal is all the same: to make a character more realistic in the mind of the reader. For example, after getting his first real fight Wolff returned home to his less-than-mediocre stepfather, Dwight. After explaining the whole story to him, Dwight first words were Who won (Tobias Wolff, This Boys Life 113).
After reading this quote, the reader might think of Dwight as uncaring, immature, or even bloodthirsty. Wolff uses many of these types of subtle, realistic characteristics to create plausible qualities that assist in drawing the reader into the story. The last major element that Wolff uses to his advantage are quandaries, or tight situations. Since many of the quandaries Wolff presents are foreign and never have been (and probably never will be) experienced by the reader, he must link them by conveying the feelings occurring in the scene. To cite an instance, during the start of his tour Wolff trained to be a jump leader for paratroopers. On his first jump, Wolff was supposed to wait for the yellow smoke before jumping.
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He instead saw black smoke, and being the only smoke in the sky he gave the order to jump. As they got closer to the ground, Wolff realized that the black smoke was actually smoke from a garbage-burning facility. Two weeks after the two-mile trudge forward to real drop site, Wolff was sent back to Vietnam (Tobias Wolff, In Pharaohs Army 72-74).
The emotions conveyed in this scene could be loathing (toward the jump leader, Wolff), embarrassment (Wolffs), other others.
The point is that quandaries are yet another method that Wolff uses to draw the reader into the story. Of course, all these elements would be useless without good writing technique. Wolffs writing style is one in its own, a masterpiece in itself. The two main elements of his style are terseness and lucidity, both of which carry equal effect and importance in Wolffs writings. Their effects on Wolffs pieces are ones of cleanliness; they make his sentences and paragraphs flow more smoothly and they deliver the information in a direct and concise fashion, which makes for easy reading. Lucidity and terseness are also important because they play a large part in drawing the reader into the story.
I believe all of Wolffs styles, concepts, and elements that were discussed in this paper are what make him an excellent writer. But, even though I consider Tobias Wolff a fantastic author and I tried my best to explain why and how he is fantastic, I believe that to truly understand Mr. Wolff, you must read his works. Yes, Im sure that is the same for any author, but I believe it is more so for Tobias Wolff. He possesses some kind of literary genius that cannot be explained in words, only in the emotions of the readers. So, if you ever get the chance, please read some of Wolffs works and hopefully then will the theories I explained become manifest in your mind..