One of the sinuous and subtly crafted stories in Tobias Wolff's new collection--his first in eleven years--begins with a man biting a dog. The fact that Wolff is reversing familiar expectations is only half the point. The other half is that Wolff makes the reversal seem inevitable: the dog has attacked his protagonist's young daughter. And everywhere in The Night in Question, we are reminded that truth is deceptive, volatile, and often the last thing we want to know.
A young reporter writes an obituary only to be fired when its subject walks into his office, very much alive. A soldier in Vietnam goads his lieutenant into sending him on increasingly dangerous missions. An impecunious mother and son go window-shopping for a domesticity that is forever beyond their grasp. Seamless, ironic, dizzying in their emotional aptness, these fifteen stories deliver small, exquisite shocks that leave us feeling invigorated and intensely alive.
While some gifted writers make a show of their virtuosity, others, like Wolff, make what they do seem so artless that only upon reflection is the meticulous craftsmanship and intelligence of their work apparent. Wolff's first book of short fiction in over a decade (after his two acclaimed memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army) finds him writing at the top of the form. In each of the 14 stories in this splendid collection, Wolff's tone is unadorned, and a good number of the events he describes are just this side of prosaic; yet they are graced by an unerring sense of just how much depth can be mined from even a seemingly inconsequential situation. In "Firelight," an unnamed narrator recollects looking at rental apartments with his glamorous but impoverished mother; their brief interaction with another family showing them an apartment they can't possibly afford opens up into a meditation on home, family and belonging. The book begins with the wry and surprising "Mortals," in which a journalist is fired for writing the obituary of a man who proves to be very much alive. Other strong stories include "Flyboys," about an uneasy trio of youthful friends, and "The Chain," in which a man's desire for revenge after his daughter is attacked by a dog begets a cycle of violence with unforeseen consequences. In several stories, teenage protagonists and young men serving in Vietnam suddenly experience the instinct of self preservation; they and other characters learn to test the limits of their moral certitude. Wolff's characterizations are impeccable, his ear pitch-perfect and his eye unblinking yet compassionate. 30,000 first printing.