This Writer's Life

Irony & Faith in the Work of Tobias Wolff

"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, Old 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,...

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About the Author

Paul J. Contino