This Writer's Life

Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff at an event at Kepler's in Menlo Park for his short story collection "Our Story Begins".

I can't live without it " Tobias Wolff was talking to me about irony. He paused, his eyes scanning the book-lined walls of his Stanford University office, and repeated: "I can't live without it. But I do think it has its temptations, and one of them of course is to make flippant what is not to be taken flippantly."

Like any morally serious person, Wolff knows that irony has its risks: "Irony [can be] a way of not talking about the unspeakable," Wolff wrote in his introduction to Matters of Life and Death, an anthology of short stories he edited in 1983. "It can be used to deflect or even to deny what is difficult, painful, dangerous--that is, consequential." Yet, as the awardwinning author of the memoirs This Boy's Life (1989; made into a film starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio) and In Pharaoh's Army (1994; an account of his tour of duty in Vietnam), three splendid short-story collections, and the 2003 novel, O/d School, Wolff has never shied away from irony. As a Catholic, he recognizes the myriad ways that irony can unsettle our imagined autonomy, and sharpen an awareness that we need and are needed by others. Indeed, as the gospel narratives demonstrate, the Christian faith itself is made vital by an ironic story: the savior comes as a helpless infant, dies as an executed slave, and rises in glory on the third day. It is this kind of rich irony that Wolff's writing suggests: the stories we tell, the narratives of our lives, are upended to make room for what we call God's story. 

Irony is also a word that could describe Wolff's relationship with Catholicism. As a ten-year-old in Salt Lake City, he was sent by his Irish-American mother to catechism classes--"a wonderful experience," he calls it. But after his family moved to Washington State, they stopped going to Mass, mainly because there were no churches near their home in a remote village of the Cascade Mountains. Wolff's Catholicism went largely neglected throughout his four years of voluntary service with the Army, his last in Vietnam in 1968. Next, withthe help of tutors, he prepared for the entrance exam to Oxford University, and was accepted. There "some friends of mine were starting to become more interested in [religion]. I started looking around a bit and found myself drawn very much to the Newman Center at Oxford, started going to Mass there, and then I took instruction from a priest there and was confirmed. It was my last year at Oxford."

It was not a naive conversion, and Wolff is candid about the difficulties he's encountered as a Catholic. Back in the United States, and for "about a year," he and his wife Catherine were involved and finally disillusioned with a charismatic renewal group. "We left it and again found some sanity in the church's traditions. They were some consolation, I have to say. But some of those traditions are a problem for me [when they lead to] the abuse of authority and the idea that the church as an institution is somehow more important than its members as a body of the faithful." Wolff offered the example of his brother-in-law, the late distinguished theologian William C. Spohn, who was a Jesuit for thirty-two years until he left the priesthood and, later, married. "To think that a church could be allowed to go without a minister before they would allow someone like Bill [to minister], because he was married...It is a loss."

A nother complicating factor for Wolff's faith is the tragic history of the church's relations with Judaism. Wolff, whose father was Jewish, is saddened and angered by the church's history of anti-Semitism. "That my church would not have lifted a finger to help me or my family in Europe," he says, his words trailing off. He discerns in the church "a kind of evasiveness about the subject," an unwillingness to engage in much-needed "honest sorting out," a "reflective defensiveness" on the subject. These difficulties with the church are anything but minor, and can even be occasions of doubt about one's faith, a theme Wolff has explored. Take, for example, the remarkable conclusion to Wolff's essay on St. John de Brebeuf (from A Tremor of Bliss: Contemporary Writers on the Saints, 1994)--missionary to the Hurons until Brebeuf's martyrdom by the Iroquois in 1649. Wolff admires--but also questions--Brebeuf's certainty of belief:

I know I am not alone in my disgust with the flaccidity of spirit that comes upon us as the consequence of trying always to accommodate the justice in each claim on our sympathy and understanding. I believe this disgust is the greatest spiritual problem of our time. In its grip we long for certainty as for the clear streams and lush fields of a childhood home we never really had. How dangerous this longing is, what terrible things it makes us do for those who promise to satisfy it.

But still I confess that I feel rebuked by such assurance as Brebeuf's, Brebeuf who never hesitated, who went to his death without a second thought. The Lord himself didn't do that. He prayed for the cup to pass him by. Even at the end, he doubted, for which I give thanks. His doubts are blessings. They pardon us for ours. I'd be lost without them.

Wolff's rhetorical turns in his Brebeuf essay are guided by ironic insight: he rejects the tolerance that can mask relativism, then diagnoses the spiritual dangers inherent in his disgust, and then confesses his own weakness of faith. In the final turn, he prayerfully expresses gratitude to a God who loves us even in our doubt. As is characteristic of his approach throughout his writing, Wolff's ironic imagination provides an opening to grace.

Along with the two memoirs that established his reputation, Wolff has published about forty short stories. "Bullet in the Brain" is likely the shortest, and is unforgettable. It is set in a bank. Anders, "a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed," stands in a long line to a teller. Bank robbers "~ charge in and demand money. Anders laughs at them derisively, and is promptly shot in the head. As Anders's brain fires its last impulses, we learn how the lens of irony had blinded him to what truly matters in life. In the same instant, the bullet that ends his life releases memories that redeem him. In these final seconds, Anders recalls a game from his daysplaying Little League baseball. The memory concerns a boy who announced his desire to play shortstop: "Short's the best position they is." This turn of phrase enchants young Anders; he was "strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them...'They is, they is, they is.'" On that day, Anders was utterly receptive to life's simpler joys, untainted by the ironic edge that provokes his death. Yet only at the moment of death does Anders recover his sense of ontological wonder, of elation at the miraculous fact that we exist.

"There's something ironic in our attempt to control our lives, to engineer the future," Wolff explained to me as we sat in his office. "If you want to put it in terms of faith, there's the disjunction between what we think our futures are going to be and should be and...if God has a plan for us then it's certainly never the one that we think it is." Appropriately, one of Wolff's favorite literary scenes comes from The Brothers Karamazov, where Fyodor challenges his atheist son Ivan: if God doesn't exist then "Who is laughing at us?" Fyodor's buffoonish challenge unwittingly echoes the old Yiddish saw: "Man plans, God laughs." Wolff's stories make room for God's stories--and for God's laughter at our stratagems and plans.

Take, for example, Wolff's story "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs." It concerns Mary, a history professor who has spent her life trying to please others. She is unhappily teaching at a small college in Oregon. A more prestigious school invites her for a job interview, and, only after arriving is she informed that she must give a lecture. Mary is unprepared. At the suggestion of her friend Louise, chair of the search committee, Mary reluctantly agrees to present one of Louise's unpublished essays as her own. Soon Mary realizes that Louise has used her: she has invited her only to fulfill a school requirement that at least one woman be interviewed for any position. Mary now recoils from the temptation to present Louise's essay as her own, to plagiarize. For the first time in her life Mary decides to "wing it." Before a crowded lecture room she stuns the audience by telling the horrific story of Jean de Brebeuf's torture and martyrdom, topping it off with a spontaneous prophetic rebuke: '"Mend your lives,' she said. 'You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts, and the strength of your arms. Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord. Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.'" Even as she suffers deep humiliation, Mary invokes the prophet Micah---and soars.

Scripture resonates throughout Wolff's stories. At the end of his novel Old School, the character Arch Makepeace returns to the tony prep school where he once served as dean. Having departed in shame, he expects a frosty welcome. But, like the prodigal son, he finds something else:

Arch stopped and looked down the garden to where the headmaster stood by the drinks table with another master. The headmaster said, "Late for his own funeral!" and everyone laughed, then he put his glass down and came toward Arch with both hands outstretched. Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hairs coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face, he felt no more than a boy again-- but a very well-versed boy who couldn't help thinking of the scene described by these old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: His father, when he saw him coining, ran to meet him.

Parables like the Prodigal Son depend on irony, and the ironies run deep in Old School. A prep-school senior, the protagonist enters a short-story writing contest that could win him an audience with Ernest Hemingway. Surrounded by students of privilege, the narrator has recently learned his father is Jewish. For the contest, he submits a previously published work by a young woman named Susan Friedman, which depicts the casual anti-Semitism inflicted by her own privileged friends. He changes the gender of the narrator, but keeps the character's name, "Levine." His crime discovered, he is expelled. Yet by plagiarizing Friedman, he has acknowledged the Jewish identity he'd been struggling to understand, and comes to a deeper, more honest self-understanding.

Wolff attended a prep school much like the one in Old School, the Hill School in Pennsylvania, and was himself expelled not for anything dishonorable, but for failing grades-- "perfectly justified and expected indeed," he said. Although he draws on that experience for his fiction, his memoirs also have literary roots, especially in St. Augustine's Confessions. Like Augustine, Wolff presents a confessio peccati, a confession of sins, as well as a confessio laudis, a confession of praise. The misdeeds he describes in his first memoir, This Boy's Life, recall Augustine's famous pear-stealing episode. In one scene, Wolff and his buddies throw eggs at a young man dressed to the nines who is on his way to pick up his date. At the end of the scene, the gratuitous malevolence of their action is underscored-and the comedy undercut--when one of his fellow culprits, irrationally enraged, screams at the egg-soaked man: "Yid!"

The end of This Boy's Life sounds a note of grace, as Wolff and his friend Chuck drive through a cool night, the moon a sliver above them, singing Buddy Holly songs, then hymns "as if we'd been saved." As if qualifies the redemptive note, but doesn't quash it. As if suggests an imagination that sees signs of grace in life's flawed joys. As in Augustine, this is, in Wolff's words, "confession in a truer sense, in the largest sense. It's kind of inclining toward something greater." The boys aren't saved just yet. But they're moving in the right direction.

Wolff's second memoir, In Pharaoh's Army, presented a series of vignettes about the Vietnam War, at home and abroad. Soon after his expulsion from the Hill School, Wolff joined the Army. He was promoted to lieutenant, and sent to Vietnam. Like Augustine, whose life is graced by the presence of his mother Monica and his bishop Ambrose, grace is mediated for Wolff by a fellow soldier, the saintly Sergeant Benet. In one chapter, Wolff accepts Benet's invitation to join him at Mass. Wolff has attended Mass only sporadically since childhood, but this liturgy in the Mekong Delta especially moves him:

The service was in Latin. The sound of the old tongue, the smell of the incense, the once-familiar rhythm of the liturgy gave me a sense of continuity with my own past, as if this place were not wholly different from other places I had been. I didn't take Communion, but I was pleased at how unhesitatingly I stood and knelt with the others, how quickly the responses came to my lips. I was glad to have Sergeant Benet there beside me. Up to now I'd been unsure of him, afraid he'd despise me for my fumbling inexperience, my incomprehensible officer status. But seeing him bow his head and pray for leniency gave me hope for some from him. When he said "Pax Christi, sir" and held out his hand, I took it with gratitude. Then I bowed to the Vietnamese around me as they were bowing to one another.

Ironically, the liturgy puts Wolff off his guard. After Mass, he fails asleep in a jeep, and a gathering crowd's commotion awakens and alerts him to the fact that a grenade, its pin pulled, is beneath his jeep ready to explode. Wolff gets out of the jeep, but it's Sergeant Benet, not Lieutenant Wolff, who has the clarity of mind to disperse the crowd from harm's way, and continues, unsentimentally, to offer Christ's peace through his actions: Wolff becomes incontinent after realizing the danger he's just escaped, and Benet cares for him as tenderly as a mother, as attentively as the good Samaritan. In Pharaoh's Army is confessional, but Wolff also casts a cold eye on the ways confession can mask self-justification and self-promotion. He tells the story of how, for laughs, he had knowingly allowed a cocksure captain--a guy who needed to be taken down a peg--to land a large helicopter in a location that Wolff knew would blow away the flimsy peasant dwellings nearby: "This was my work, this desolation had blown straight from my own heart." After he returns to the States, he stops at a run-down bar in California with Jan, a young woman who has captured his interest, and tells this story to her and a group of vets. The title of the chapter is "Souvenir," and that's how he treats his tale: he takes it out to show it around. But when he sees Jan react with horror, he regrets it, and--in retrospect--calls into question the entire confessional mode:

How do you tell such a terrible story? Maybe such a story shouldn't be told at all. Yet finally it will be told. But as soon as you open your mouth you have problems, problems of recollection, problems of tone, ethical problems. How can you judge the man you were now that you've escaped his circumstances, his fears and desires, now that you hardly remember who he was?

And how can you honestly avoid judging him? But isn't there, in the very act of confession, an obscene selfcongratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it? And isn't it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other's people's houses apart? And in the end, who gives a damn, who's listening? What do you owe the listener, and which listener do you owe?

In Wolff's writing, confession is always imperfect, yet necessary-after all, people will never stop sinning. He writes stories about complex moral conundrums, portraits of people succumbing to self-absorption, yet struggling past it. The first and final stories of Back in the World (1985) portray flawed people--an abandoned, sometimes cruel adolescent girl; a rich, self-satisfied real-estate man--trying to be good, trying at least to care for their needy younger brothers. In "The Missing Person," Fr. Leo is an undervalued priest who accompanies Jerry, the convent's fundraising director, to Las Vegas. While there, Jerry gambles away all the congregation's money and then runs off. Fr. Leo is disgusted by this betrayal, yet the story ends not with an image of futility, but with an imperfect gesture of Christian solidarity. Fr. Leo meets a sunburned, lonely, and fearful woman, and tenderly, chastely cares for her, and thus continues to live the mystery of his vocation. Here again the spiritual sin of disgust is countered by loving attentiveness.

Throughout Wolff's fiction, when people pause and pay attention to others, they discern, to use the words of Gaudium et spes, their "needful solidarity" with them. When disgust and violence eclipse attention, the links of human solidarity are broken. In an especially powerful story aptly titled "The Chain," the protagonist Brian Gold insists that a wrong be righted: an unleashed dog has come within an inch of disfiguring, perhaps killing, his little daughter. Gold wants the dog euthanized. Disgusted by the law's indifference, he has a friend kill the dog, and thus forges a bond that unintentionally leads to a murder. The community grieves this senseless murder of Marcel and, at the story's end, Gold stands behind the counter of his video store and hears Marcel eulogized by his friend:

"Marcel had this thing...he could bring people together. He just had this easy way and he talked to you like you were important, like everybody's important. He could get people to come together, know what I'm saying? Come together and get on with it. Peacemaker. Marcel was a peacemaker. And that's the best thing you can be."

Gold's disgust with the injustice of the attack on his daughter leads to vengeance, and then to unexpected violence; disgust blinkers his capacity for that patient attentiveness--seen in Marcel--that can, unexpectedly, bring peace. At the story's end, one senses that Gold has begun a journey toward redemption. But the road back from transgression is never easy.

Throughout his own journey, Wolff has been grateful for the sacramental gifts of the church. "I am deeply blessed in my marriage above all things," Wolff said. "That was a singular instance of grace for me, meeting my wife, and has been so ever since." He goes to confession once a year, from which he receives "encouragement." "I am very aware of the things that I do wrong...and apologize for them in my ongoing prayer. They are part of my human makeup. I use my work as one way to try to overcome them and I hope I've made some progress." Wolff was good friends with the late short-story writer Andre Dubus, and wrote the introduction to Dubus's first collection of essays, Broken Vessels (1991). Although Wolff does not write as explicitly about the Eucharist as did Dubus, he finds in the sacrament a deep sense of "communion with others and with what is most important in the life of the church--the impulse to nourish and sustain." An analogous impulse animates Wolff's stories: In the Eucharist, we celebrate our unity as the body of Christ--both broken and blessed. Reading Wolff, we recognize not only our brokenness, but our blessedness, too.

In the course of our conversation, Wolff and I discovered our mutual admiration for Robert Ellsberg's unconventional profiles in his book All Saints (Crossroad). I asked Wolff if the following statement made sense to him: "Our human vocation is to become a saint." He paused, and said, "It should, I think. But more and more my instincts are that our calling as human beings is to become fully human. And it's hard, it's hard." "Sanctity," he continued, might be conferred after death, but "the problem is looking forward [to holiness] as a goal, a kind of attainment. It almost inevitably will lead to frustration and a kind of surrender, whereas the more modest and hopeful way of proceeding is to try and be fully what you're given to be and not what you can't be." The stories of Tobias Wolff, so often suffused with irony, point his readers toward such a "modest and hopeful way."

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

Paul J. Contino is Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University. He is the author of Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism: Finding Christ among the Karamazovs (Cascade 2020).

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