One of the best stories in Our Story Begins, a collection of new and selected older stories by Tobias Wolff, is called “The Liar.” It’s about a teenage boy who regales strangers with dark fictions about his family—appalling accounts of misfortune and disease. These drive his mother crazy; a concrete, pious person, she can’t stand dishonesty, and she sends him to the family doctor. The charm of the story lies in the likability of its characters. The mother is a good woman and a fine parent; the doctor is an understanding sort who doesn’t make too much of the boy’s misdeeds; the boy is mature enough to appreciate his mother’s concerns and his doctor’s efforts on his behalf. But he can’t stop lying. Eventually, we learn that he started the day his father died, after a struggle with cancer, in his favorite chair. The boy, finding the corpse, got a friend to help him drag it upstairs to bed. His mother was relieved—‘“Thank God,” she said, “at least he died in bed”’—until she discovered what her son had not told her. The end of the story finds the boy on a bus that has broken down in a storm, recounting a magnificent whopper. He was born in Tibet; he was raised by missionaries; he is fluent in Tibetan. Soon he starts singing his fellow passengers to sleep in made-up Tibetan, “surely,” he says, “an ancient and holy tongue.”
To read a collection of Wolff’s work that spans the years is to realize that he is obsessed with the act of lying. Asked in an interview why so many of his characters lie, Wolff replied, “The world is not enough, maybe? … To lie is to say the thing that is not, so there’s obviously an unhappiness with what is, a discontent.” A recent outbreak of faked memoirs has set off a storm of outraged pontification about why people pass off false histories as their own, so it’s satisfying to read about liars who lie for interesting reasons rather than the usual despicable ones. Wolff is, in fact, a genius at locating the truths revealed by lies—the ancient and holy tongues, you might say, the otherwise inexpressible inner realities that lies give voice to.
The protagonist of his novel Old School, for instance, gets kicked out of boarding school for passing off someone else’s short story as his own. But he doesn’t plagiarize to advance himself, or at least that’s not his dominant motive. He does it, in some not entirely fathomable way, to expose himself—to borrow the story’s frank discussion of its heroine’s hidden Jewish identity, and her shame about it, in order to own up to the same shame in himself. The young Wolff, in Wolff’s sublime memoir This Boy’sLife, is stumped for anything to say at his first confession; his “sense of being at fault” goes too deep, is too generalized, to articulate. So, in one of the funnier bits in the book, he borrows someone else’s sins to confess. This is lying, of course, but it is also a sincere admission of guilt, the best he can make at the time.
And in “The Deposition,” a new story in the collection, Wolff asks us to consider whether telling the truth can also be a way of lying. A schoolgirl in a crumbling postindustrial town in upstate New York accuses a big-city lawyer of sexually harassing her, and though his denial of guilt is factually accurate—he looked at the girl while passing her at a bus stop—we know that she’s not telling an untruth. The lawyer, just flown in from San Francisco to take a deposition in a worthy malpractice case, is a do-gooder filled with liberal intentions, but he is also a predator, eager to nail down his witness and suffused by an unpleasant mix of pity and disgust for the residents of the town he is strolling through. These people, he thinks, are too passive to wrest their due from the corporations that have abandoned them. The place makes him feel guilty; it reminds him of the town in Ohio he fled as soon as he could. Having convinced a policeman that he did nothing wrong, he is about to move on when a woman who has taken up the girl’s cause suddenly slaps him in the face: ” ‘Liar,’ she said.” She didn’t actually see the incident, but she’s right, and he knows it. There was an exploitative hunger in the way he walked behind and stopped before the girl, a lust to use her beauty and sexual un-self-consciousness to wipe away the feeling of having been complicit in the creation of all this ugliness.
As the story suggests, there’s a political edge to Wolff’s recent fiction. This is not new—his other excellent memoir In the Pharaoh’s Army was set in that most political of places, Vietnam—but Wolff seems even angrier now. Two of the new stories deal with military life in the age of Iraq. One of them addresses Muslim-American cultural conflict. Nearly all of them play out against the backdrop of small towns ravaged by negligence, greed, and indifference to history.
Rage, however, does not bring out the best in Wolff. Too many of these new stories score obvious points about the causes of American decline, rather than perform the scalpel-sharp dissections of conflicted, shifting consciousness that Wolff has shown himself capable of. Wolff’s characters, at their most opalescent, don’t just lie to others; they lie to themselves. Then, suddenly, they achieve self-knowledge. Then, suddenly, they betray the people they love most in the world. Betrayal, as it happens, is another of Wolff’s obsessions: Just as his characters lie to express themselves, they betray to discover who they are. You never know when or how the young Wolff of This Boy’s Life will let his mother down next, despite being deeply connected to her and aware of her struggle to do right by him. But you do know that he has to disappoint her. He has to preserve his childishness in the face of her tacit plea that he understand too much and forgive too readily.
The young Wolff, it must be said, is the writer’s greatest character. It is as if Wolff needed the mess of real life to achieve the inexhaustible freedom of superb mimesis. Few protagonists in fiction have managed to combine lying, candor, sweetness, cruelty, loyalty, treachery, and pure adolescent contrariness into as thrillingly unpredictable a package.
Of the protagonists in the recent stories, only the lawyer in “The Deposition” and the father in “Nightingale” shed layers with the jarring speed of the earlier characters. In “Nightingale,” the father, Dr. Booth, gets lost in backwoods while driving his son to a military academy he has forced the boy to enroll in. In the first third of the story, he anxiously rehearses the reasons for his decision: the boy’s laziness and lack of initiative, especially when compared with himself at that age. In the second third of the story, he drops the boy off at school, and it quickly becomes clear that the school is a sadistic boot camp, a strangely empty nightmare of a place. Dr. Booth registers the creepiness, yet, as if in a dream—and here the story moves out of realism and into absurdity—he can’t act on his perceptions. He asks to see the headmaster, the headmaster refuses to see him, and Dr. Booth drives away meekly, leaving his son behind. In the last third of the story, he gets lost again, stops the car, and is flooded with a horrifying realization: The lies he has told himself about himself have caused him to steal from his son what is rightfully his—the dreamy unproductiveness of childhood. These lies, beaten into Dr. Booth by a brutal father, amount to a hatred of himself as a child, of his own child, of childhood itself. There’s nothing novel about a father reproducing the abuse he suffered as a child, but Wolff turns a stale situation into a fresh study of self-betrayal, and how it passes from generation to generation.
Fiction lies, Frank Kermode has written, because it ends. Wolff’s more memorable stories, as well as his remarkable memoirs, thwart that sense of closure. They spin the illusion of open possibility. Kermode quotes the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, “Whether he be original or plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself. … To be free means to be lacking in constitutive identity, not to have subscribed to a determined being, to be able to be other than what one was.” It does not seem coincidental that Wolff’s most protean narratives draw heavily upon his autobiographical experiences. Wolff, at his best, is truly a novelist of himself. His feats of self-invention offer a compelling rebuttal both to the fabulists whose stories fall so short of reality that they have to borrow the truth guarantee of memoir—if the lies rang truer, they could be published as fiction—and to those who denounce the faking of memoir as some sort of heinous crime, rather than the failed act of literature it is.