Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “The Night in Question” by Tobias Wolff

A friend of mine is very big on stories having a beginning, a middle and an end.

The 15 stories in The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff don’t fit that at all.

Some have stutter-step endings that seem to go one way and then another and maybe a third, such as in “Casualty.” An American soldier in Vietnam is fatally wounded. A comrade grieves, or thinks he does. A nurse on a C141 med evac has trouble coping when she realizes the soldier she has been caring for is dead.

During a lull later on she stopped and leaned her forehead against a porthole [in the airplane]. The sun was just above the horizon. The sky was clear, no clouds between her and the sea below, whole name she loved to hear the pilots say — the East China Sea. Through the crazed Plexiglas she could make out some small islands and the white glint of a ship in the apex of its wake. Someday she was going to take passage on one of those ships, by herself or maybe with some friends…When she closed her eyes she could see the whole thing, perfectly

Many have endings that don’t really end, but open a new door through which the reader can get a glimpse of what is coming next. Here, for instance, is how “The Life of the Body” ends:

He’d keep saying her name…Say it in the moony broguish way she liked…He would hit that note, and once he got her listening there was no telling what might happen, because all he really needed were words, and of words, Wiley knew, there was no end.

Or the conclusion of “Chain,” when the reader knows more than the guy trying to provide comfort:

He touched Mr. Gold’s shoulder. “That man’ll get his,” he said. “He’ll get what’s coming to him. Count on it.”


Wolff --- Night-in-Question1“Hear her father’s steps”

Children and teens are the central characters in the majority of Wolff’s stories, and make an appearance of one sort or another in most of the rest. Similarly, almost all of the stories deal in some way with lies and lying, and also with fear.

In “Two Boys and a Girl,” one of the boys pretends to own the Buick he drives around town, and later he lies to get revenge. In “The Other Miller,” a teenage soldier lies (or thinks he does) to get out of maneuvers in the mud and rain.

In the story that gives this 1996 book its title, Frances remembers the childhood she shared with her brother Frank.

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.

Death is a major element in about half of the stories, including the first, “Mortals,” about an obituary writer, and the last, “Bullet in the Brain.” In others, a dog is murdered, the favored son of a hardscrabble family dies in a motorcycle accident, and a character recounts a sermon about a father who must choose between saving his son and a crowd of people.


“A big lump”

“Casualty,” of course, is about death. It’s also about talking about death later.

He described the scene in the clearing, the wounded men sitting on tree stumps, muddy, dumb with shock, and the dead man in his bag, not stretched out like someone asleep but all balled up in the middle. A big lump.

That “big lump” is the antithesis of the characters who inhabit Wolff’s stories. Those characters are edgy with life, fearful, uncertain, alone even with others. No simple, clear-cut beginnings and ends for them.

The people in Wolff’s captivating stories are on the margins or feel themselves on the margins. They feel always in some way at risk. One character finds success in life, epitomized by his family joining him around the fireplace.

This is the moment I dream of when I am far away; this is my dream of home. But in the very heart of it I catch myself bracing a little, as if in fear of being tricked. As if to really believe in it will somehow make it vanish, like a voice waking me from sleep

Patrick T. Reardon

Leave a comment