Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff

This is a collection of short stories that I picked up after hearing one of them, Bullet in the Brain, read on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast that I listen to. Later, after receiving the book but before getting around to reading it, I heard another, the titular The Night in Question, read on the same podcast.

The Night in Question is the thirteenth story in the collection, and it took me that long to figure out what Wolff was doing with them. Here a chunk of that story’s concluding paragraph.

Frances didn’t mind a fight, and she especially didn’t mind fighting for her brother. For her brother she’d fought neighborhood punks, snotty teachers and unappreciative coaches, loan sharks, landlords, bouncers. From the time she was a scabby-kneed girl she’d taken on her own father and if push came to shove she’d take on the Father of All, that incomprehensible bully. She was ready. It would be like old times, the two of them waiting in her room upstairs while Frank Senior worked himself into a rage below, muttering, slamming doors, stinking up the house with the cigars he puffed when he was on a tear. She remembered it all -- the tremor in her legs, the hammering pulse in her neck as the smell of smoke grew stronger. She could still taste that smoke and hear her father’s steps on the stairs, Frank panting beside her, moving closer, his voice whispering her name and her own voice answering as fear gave way to ferocity and unaccountable joy. It’s okay, Franky. I’m here.

I won’t tell you what the rest of the story is about. You should go read it for yourself. It’s simple, yet layered and brilliantly conceived. But, in a way, the other parts of the story are only relevant with regard to how they support the emotion conveyed in this final paragraph. Because Wolff’s stories, at least those that appear in this collection, are not about the series of events that they describe. They are each about a single, complex emotion -- fear giving way to ferocity and unaccountable joy. Each about a single inner working of one human heart.

And in Bullet in the Brain the technique perhaps reaches its apogee. There, it is Anders, “being strangely roused, elated,” by two words, by “their pure unexpectedness and their music.” Literally, you will see if you ever decide to read this remarkable story, nothing else in the story matters as much as this simple and lyrical moment in time, and yet it all hangs together as a delightful whole. In the beginning, in the end, forever, it is simply “time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.”

In this way, they are stories about very small things, but things that leave a lasting impression.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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