This was the second story in The Best American Short Stories 2006 anthology. I must admit I feel like I’ve read another short story by Tobias Wolff (the name is familiar) although it was back in college and I can’t find a good list of his short stories’ titles.
In general I enjoyed this story more. It felt more like a slice of life with obvious purpose. A sergeant answers a call which leads to a series of events and a series of information that we learn about the narrator. I swear I didn’t like this story just because the main character was gay (or at least had relations with men, and solely men).
In my research to see if Wolff had written another story I recognized, I also peeked to see that he was married with children and seventy years old. While this doesn’t necessarily affect the piece, I felt that for an older man who is likely straight (although not definitely, I recognize the assumption here), his representation of homosexual relations was even-keeled. It was neither romanticized nor demonized, but rather a fairly honest representation.
The themes of the story is pride and giving/receiving and hospitality. The woman in the story is tending for her nephew, while her brother the father is skipping out on responsibilities (and now out of the country b/c of the army). Anytime the narrator tries to pay for something or offer her money, she refuses–which is later said to be the stubborn pride of mountain/country folk.
But it was also said that if the narrator had offered his own residence as a place to crash for the night instead of offering money for a hotel, that the woman likely would have taken him because hospitality is always accepted.
However, it’s at this time that we learn that the narrator didn’t offer his boyfriend’s house (where he’s pretty much staying now) because “What he feared, what he could not allow, was for her to see how [the boyfriend] looked at him, and then to see that he could not give back what he received. That things between them were unequal, and himself unloving.”
So this woman who has no money, has lost hours/job because of her responsibility, is unwilling to take what she needs because of her pride, and yet this man, who has money and a steady job, is willing to take love without returning it. There’s a lot to really pull apart and analyze here, which isn’t really my purpose of these.
From a creative standpoint, we start with a phone call that hooks us and introduces the two main players, and through them the two side players. In a very short amount of time we’re given enough history about the characters that we have a feel for both of them, without being so overwhelmed with facts and information that it bogs down the pace of the story–and since this is a mellow piece, bogging it down would kill it.
The kicker is at the end, when we learn that the narrator doesn’t return the feelings for his on-going relationship, which lets the reader go back and read the story with a whole new angle. Obviously his discussion of his previous relationships, which just seemed like background, are showing us things about him. The story very capably tells a slice of these two characters’ lives while also telling us about all the deeper things happening to them that we don’t get to see and we have to explore/analyze on our own.
And yet the tale itself holds up without further analysis. To me, this represents a strong story, because it entertains, while making the reader think about the reasons why the characters behave in a certain fashion, while also implying the reader should ask those same questions of themselves.