“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”
-Tobias Wolff (Old School, p. 46)
The upcoming Tokens show on June 7th features an outstanding cast of guests, including literary heavyweights Tracy K. Smith (U.S. Poet Laureate) and renowned novelist, memoirist, and short story writer Tobias Wolff. And I’ve been thanking my lucky stars since I’ve been offered the opportunity to interview Tobias Wolff for the occasion.
Among other advantages, this opportunity has afforded me a nice excuse to delve into Wolff’s works, several of which have long been on my reading list. Having done so, I am a bit giddy to have found in him a new favorite author—and, no less, a favorite with whom I am scheduled to have a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation in a couple of weeks. But, admittedly, the prospect of talking with Wolff is also intimidating. I feel rather edgy at the thought of chatting with a writer whose talents have been honored by the likes of two PEN Awards and National Medal of Arts, whose book covers are blazoned with seals such as “Los Angeles Times Book Prize.”
On this account, however, I have discovered in Wolff’s writing an unexpected source of grace. The more I read, the more I think he would be the first to tell me—better yet, the first to help me—not to get too googly-eyed over a list of impressive titles on a book jacket.
For starters, Wolff’s unaffected style draws his reader’s attention not to himself, to his authorial genius, but to the story, the content, the “true piece of writing” on the page.
What’s more, the import of such careful attention is often the subject of his writing itself. Through the humanity of his characters’ disillusionments, through his refusal to rely on familiar tropes, through his exposure of the slipperiness of memory and desire—in sum, through the form and content of his work—Wolff doggedly returns to the difficulty, yet power, of truth-telling.
That power is nothing if not a force for destroying our idols. Borrowing a couple of lines from his novel Old School, one might say that Wolff takes “unblinking inventory of self-seeking and duplicity,” and he does so without thereby cultivating an “obsession with purity—its roots sunk deep in pride, flowering in condemnation and violence against others and oneself.”
In this regard, Wolff’s literary work is dense with theological consequence. Its theological texture coheres, arguably (and rather fortuitously, given Wolff’s participation in the upcoming Tokens show), with certain angles of Bob Dylan’s lyric poetry, which angles Lee Camp nicely highlighted in last week’s blog post[LC1] . I will conclude this brief introduction to Wolff by noting three parallels that stand out to me:
1. Like Dylan’s poetry, Wolff’s creative prose does not offer an escape from the world’s complexity but rather a lens through which to see it all the more clearly. For those who embrace the Augustinian line that “truth belongs to God, wherever it is found,” Wolff’s incisive writing offers access to sacramental vision, illuminating sacred truths that hold supposedly secular reality together.
2. Wolff consistently exposes the human tendency to accept the un-truths that prop up our (in)securities and impoverish our chances for real community, real courage, real joy. Thus, Wolff’s work is also prophetic, in the sense Thomas Merton identified as a capacity to speak truths that others cannot or will not speak.
In executing his prophetic vision, Wolff has a knack for showing how the inability to speak truth is the eventual result of an unwillingness to do so—that is, how, if we cling to falsehoods long enough, we lose our ability to discern lies from truth.
As the narrator of his short story “Next Door” puts it: “Everybody always says how great it is that human beings are so adaptable, but I don’t know. . . . It’s awful, what we get used to.”
Wolff reveals the capacity of this awful adaptability to infuse any context of human self-talk. Nothing is exempt from his BS meter, as it were: not the pretensions of university professors who fancy themselves untethered from the rules of civility, nor the clichés of war-writing that serve only to romanticize the hellish affair, nor even the tropes that we rely on to sound as if we are being transparent, when we are actually hiding behind what gains a receptive audience. (In this regard, and in view of the interpersonal and political harms associated with posturing and “fake news” on social media, one could argue that Wolff is also prophetic in Merton’s second sense: anticipating the “struggles and the general consciousness of later generations.”)
3. Lastly, like Dylan’s, Wolff’s prophetic vision gives way to eschatological expectation, opening towards a transfigurative end wherein love will prevail. In such moments, as rare and poignant in Wolff’s writing as they are in everyday life, he calls us to consider that eschatological hope is costly, but it is not baseless. There are glimpses of such love, yet to come in full, which have already broken into the midst of human history.
Wolff paints a beautiful image of such in-breaking at the end of Old School, where a man who seeks redemption and community is greeted with delight by his friend who invites his return. In the traveler’s encounter with this grace, though he had “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 coming, ran to meet him.”
 Old School: A Novel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). Pages 186, 193.
 Augustine, On Christian Teaching, II.75.
 From Our Story Beings: New and Selected Stories (New York: Vintage Books, 2008). Page 19.
 Old School, 195.
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