Tobias Wolff has already assured himself a place in the canon with the publication of such books as Old School and his excellent memoir This Boy's Life. The recently released Our Story Begins is a collection of his short stories, from early works that have been anthologized elsewhere to the 10 new stories that conclude the collection.
The works are arranged chronologically, and the first stories have a contrived patness that can detract from Wolff's always-precise prose. A turning point comes early on, though, with the story "Flyboy," about two young friends attempting to build a jet plane. Here is the first story that doesn't feel like it was written for inclusion in a high school English textbook, and there are few misfires in the stories to come. "Her Dog" turns the simple setup of a man walking his dead wife's dog into an offbeat study of mortality and regret, via an imagined dialogue between man and dog, in which the dog chastises his owner for his lack of devotion: "You ignored her. She would call your name and you would go on reading your paper, or watching TV, and pretend you hadn't heard. Did she ever have to call my name twice? No!"
Among the recurring motifs is an unflagging awareness of the human capacity for deceit and self-deception. The collection's most explicitly bleak story, "That Room," condenses that into four sobering pages, in which an cocky young farmhand walks into a hotel room with his youthful arrogance intact, and walks out with his worldview irrevocably changed:
"That room—once you enter it, you never really leave. You can forget you're there, you can go on as if you hold the reins, that the course of your life, yea even its length, will reflect the force of your character and the wisdom of your judgments. And then you hit an icy patch on a turn one sunny March day and the wheel in your hands becomes a joke and you no more than a spectator to your own dreamy slide toward the verge, and then you remember where you are."
Summing up the ultimate futility of human agency in three sentences? Now that's why Wolff belongs in the canon.