Tobias Wolff's great "This Boy's Life" had less self-pity in it than any other coming-of-age memoir I'd ever read. Reading the book, my heart broke for the young Wolff, even as he made it clear that he never learned a damn thing anybody tried to teach him until circumstances forced him to learn for himself.
In this new collection of short stories, Wolff slips easily into the minds of his protagonists and imparts that same capacity for self-knowledge (especially in "Firelight," which recalls the memoir's ineffable evocation of a mother and son transcending those roles to fulfill the nobler ones of allies). 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. "He had been forced to surrender certain pictures of himself that had once given him pride and a serene sense of entitlement to his existence," Wolff writes of the Vietnam short-timer in "Casualty." Reading these stories sometimes produces a feeling akin to what churns in the gut of the young woman in "The Night in Question" as she steels herself for the terrible climax of the sermon her holy roller brother preaches to her.
She doesn't allow him to get to it and, for the most part, Wolff shares her distaste for cheap ironies. When he succumbs, as in "The Other Miller" and the closing story, "Bullet in the Brain," he can call his own strengths into question -- the feel for naturalistic detail that never sinks to the mandarin drudgery of Raymond Carver; the precise, unshowy verisimilitude of period and character.
What's most impressive about these stories, though, is Wolff's subtle but relentless linking of private behavior to public consequence. The father in "The Chain" (a grimly ironic title), appalled when the police do nothing about the dog that attacks his toddler, sets out to restore his sense of justice and his desire for security and ends up robbing himself of the ability to ever feel safe or just again. For these characters, "Know thyself" becomes an inescapable, defining and sometimes shattering destiny.