Tobias Wolff

Short Story of the Day – Day 30

Stephanie Vaughn’s “Dog Heaven

dog heaven

Day Thirty

Love, love, love this story. I’m so thankful that Tobias Wolff had chosen this story for a New Yorker Fiction podcast selection because I would’ve probably never encounter it any other way. This story definitely made me get Vaughn’s collection, Sweet Talk, which contained the story, and many others which were equally great. A hard copy reading is so much better than online reading. Definitely a must-read. Listen to Wolff read it. The New Yorker Fiction podcast is free and easy to download on iTunes!


Old School

When it comes to books, there are simply some books that you have to reread for a second time. Tobias Wolff’s Old School is definitely one of them.

Tobias Wolff's Old School

Tobias Wolff’s Old School

The first time I read it was sometime during middle school – I was new to the world of writing and the book’s contents truly enamored me to it. The protagonist is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960 who more than anything wants to be a writer. As the book takes shape, a tradition at his school which grants the winner of the literary contest the chance to meet the visiting writer brings the narrator to try his best to search within himself to write something noteworthy of attention. Meeting a writer and being welcomed by one through their acceptance was an aspiration that held dearly not only to the protagonist but to the other boys in his school who competed to be “anointed” (7).

-Spoiler Alert!-

The first writer to be invited by the school is Robert Frost.

Although the narrator doesn’t win, I found the section concerning Frost’s decision making of the winning piece he chose to be interesting. George Kellogg is the winner and his poem, “First Frost” is misinterpreted by Frost to be a “take-off” of sorts which he embraces rather easily: “Young Kellogg has had some fun at this old man’s expense, and I guess this old man can stand some fun, if it isn’t too expensive…Frost sounded like a man who’d been stung by a taunt, showing he could take it and come back with some chaff of his own.” (40).

George never meant it that way and although the rest of his classmates see this, Frost sees it another way.

What did you think of the poem, he asked me…Did you think I was…having fun at his expense?

Well, I guess you could read it that way.

You could?

It’s possible…But you don’t have to read it as parody, I said. You can also read it as tribute. You know, the farm, the folksy tone, the snow. It’s like you’re paying your respects to him – tipping your hat, so to speak.

Exactly! …That’s exactly how I mean it, as an homage. He looked at me with such gratitude… (40-41)

One of the duties of the visiting writer (besides choosing a winning piece and meeting the young writer) is to read in front of the school. As a means of introduction, the headmaster brings everyone’s attention. However, aside from doing that, he expresses a sentiment that foreshadows the protagonist’s downfall and quite possibly, any beginner writer: “Make no mistake…a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” (47).

The second writer to make her appearance in the book is Ayn Rand.

This is the narrator’s second opportunity to make a go at it after his poem “Red Snow” failed to capture the attention of Robert Frost. Anticipating a routine boredom  at his Grandparent’s for Christmas break, the narrator purchases a copy of The Fountainhead and becomes so enthralled by the book that he rereads it for a second time: “I was discovering the force of my will. To read The Fountainhead was to feel this caged power, straining like a damned-up river to break loose and crush every impediment to its free running…The Fountainhead made me alert to the smallest surrender of will.” (68-70).

As his vacation comes to a close, the narrator ends up returning to school early. Hoping to get a head start on his story, he ends up writing nothing but instead reads Rand’s book for a 3rd and 4th time. He is delirious and his obsession starts affecting his body until it collapses during class, catching influenza and lucky to have not died. He misses the deadline to submit to Rand.

During Rand’s visit, the narrator manages to sneak his way to listen to Rand. Throughout her talk, Rand is depicted as a radical and fiercely defends her attitude by bringing up her Russian upbringing. She defends her work and the characters who have been critiqued as “unreal because they live out their ideals” and “do not exist” as a result (82). When confronted to talk about her peers in writing, she finds no one better than herself and the novels that have brought her to her position. Eventually, her voice and “her disgust [which] had power” (91) forces the narrator to wake up and snap out of his obsessiveness. The reversal from idolizing to reality is really felt and I believe that Tobias Wolff did a great job in building such a sentiment within a reader. But just like love, it’s hard to rebound without some defects and the narrator transfers his tendency for obsession to Ernest Hemingway, the next visiting writer.

The third writer said to make their appearance at the school is Ernest Hemingway.

It is at this point in the story where the narrator begins to copy out Hemingway’s stories: “transcribing masterworks in order to learn what it actually felt like to write something great” (98). Mimicking as a form of flattery and a learning device is discussed here.

Throughout this story, the narrator struggles with his identity yet as we come to find out later on in the final sections of the novel, he’s not the only one. The narrator’s identity is closely linked to his writing and as he feels: “My stories were designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act. I couldn’t read any of them without thrusting the pages away in mortification. I couldn’t write like that again, but didn’t know how else to write – how to go about making something that was true.” (110)

One must, above all, endure

As Hemingway’s visit gained more and more attention, the scene at school is described as “feverish” and one where “knowing that the greatest of living writers would soon be among [them] made [them] a little crazy with self-importance” (107).

Only one of the many could be chosen, we all understood that, yet you couldn’t help feeling that not to be chosen was to be rejected. And to be rejected by Ernest Hemingway – Ernest Hemingway tossing your story aside, No, not him, not a prayer. What a terrible thought! (107)

Distracted and to some extent, procrastinating, the narrator comes across a back issue of a review five years old. He starts reading it and he likes it.

“Make no mistake…a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life” (47).

Remember this? ^^^

As the narrator finishes reading the story, he sees the truth: “From the very first sentence I was looking myself right in the face” (125). The key word to this all…TRUTH. He sees the truth. And then the question becomes:

How do you begin to write truly? (126)

Plagiarism sadly isn’t the answer but the narrator is so caught up on how much of the story reflects his own true story that he mistakes his transcription to feel how it felt to write the story as his own by changing only a few words to make it his own.

And sure enough, Hemingway chooses the narrator’s story. As the reader you’ve recognized the plagiarist, the very character you’ve been rooting to win and following along, steered away from his good intentions to be recognized as someone great. Now you’re waiting for the consequences to unfold. But it takes time. Hemingway even gives advice:

Don’t talk about your writing.

Get up at first light and work like hell

Hold on to your friends.

Did I say keep your friends? Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends. (136)

Teachers praise the narrator, his friend’s acknowledge him as well but then everything crashes, he gets caught and is kicked out for good.

What follows is what almost serves as an epilogue of sorts, tying two stories about the truth, one hidden among the other. The second story is that of Dean Makepeace, someone said to have been Ernest Hemingway’s friend. The key word is said.

Like the narrator, Dean Makepeace (Arch) was eager to be among the greats. He had a “hidden yearning to be part of the great world. To be important, even by association.” (181) But as the reader finds out, Dean Makepeace was never a friend of Hemingway. He didn’t know him nor has he ever seen him.

What links him with the narrator?

This boy had laid false claim to a story, whereas he himself had laid false claim to much more-to a king of importance, to a life not his own. (187)

Dean Makepeace is haunted by the truth only to be reminded to consider the folly of obsession with purity.

“…its roots sunk deep in pride, flowering in condemnation and violence against others and oneself. For years Arch had traced this vision of the evil done through intolerance of the flawed and ambiguous, but he had not taken the lesson to heart. He had given up the good in his life because a fault ran through it.” (193)

By the end, Dean Makepeace finds the will to overlook the fault and returns to what he loves and considers a joy, his post as a teacher.


No true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there any moment of which you can say: This when I became a writer. It all gets cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. (157)

Sweet Talk

I’m a sucker for short stories. Something about the art form of a writer focusing his efforts to tell a story not too short to be called a poem yet not too long to be called a novel draws me in. Perhaps, it’s the ability to read them in one sitting? You would think, then, I would like poetry as much, right? I like poetry but not as much as I enjoy the reading of a quality short story.

On my first attempt to renew this blog, I’m happy to announce that my first post of the new year will focus on my take on Stephanie Vaughn’s collection of short stories entitled Sweet Talk. (I finally found a copy of the book at the Strand so I just had to get it!)

 Sweet Talk

#readwomen2014 !!

Like Tobias Wolff, I too encountered Stephanie Vaughn through The New Yorker. Actually, Toby (can I call him Toby?) had a lot to do with it too. It was through The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast series that Tobias Wolff was asked to choose a story from their archives to read and discuss with fiction editor Deborah Treisman for his first appearance. (On his second appearance he chose Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”.)

In the 2012 Other Press edition of Sweet Talk, Tobias Wolff gives a warm introduction to his thoughts on Stephanie Vaughn’s short story collection. As he puts it, “though the stories vary in time and place and dramatis personae, there is a sort of spine running through the collection, and that is the cumulative, evolving portrait of Gemma’s family”. This is a short story collection that mostly (5 out of the 10 stories) centers around Gemma, the main character in which Vaughn focuses her stories.

“Story after story the confident adult world is revealed as a shaky edifice built not on rock but on sands yielding constantly to the influence of alcohol, war, bad luck, disease, and simple human frailty”.

Doesn’t this short story collection sound enticing?!

Spoiler Alert! –About to recap just one of my favorite stories, I suggest you read them all!– Spoiler Alert!

In the first story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” the father is introduced as a “tall and awesome” Army officer which Gemma’s grandmother (on her mother’s side) seems to constantly bicker about how her daughter should’ve married a minister instead. But like any authoritative father, Gemma’s father is dictatorial. He lays down the rules where at mealtimes he “lecture[s] on the mechanics of life” and on speaking with a “calculation and precision” that Gemma notices within him.

When you lose, don’t cry. When you win, don’t gloat. (6)

Vaughn also makes great use of the setting that she places her characters. One reoccurring symbol within two of her stories – “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” and “Dog Heaven” – is the mystifying might of the river.

“I don’t like the river,” [the mother says]. “I think it wants to hypnotize you” (10).

The river is described to have the power to draw you in literally but also mentally. In another instance, the father tells a story in which two men await their fate on a river barge “waiting to see whether in the next moment of their lives they would go over [the Falls].” The story concludes with their eventual rescue after staying still “all afternoon and night, listening to the sound of the water pounding into the boulders at the bottom of the gorge”. As they are asked to recount their stories, “the thinking man” talks about how he had spent the night playing poker in his head” while the other chooses not to speak.

He could not speak.

“The scream of the water entered his body,” said my father. He paused to let us think about that…

“He went insane” (11).

The first story takes a turn when Gemma’s father faces the reality that comes with a career falling apart. As his observant daughter, Gemma is there to see it, “not knowing the cause but knowing the consequences” (17) that come with it. As the story comes full fold, the tension between father and daughter comes to a daunting end. A father-daughter story that one can resonate with, provided beautifully by the details that Vaughn carefully chooses through her technique of language.

-End of Spoiler…kind of…-

The rest of the short stories included in the following order:

“Sweet Talk” : an interesting story of love and invention. I liked how the characters take jabs at each other mentally, hoping to make their “sting of the[ir] intention to hurt” felt.

“We’re on TV in the Universe” : a short story that kind of, kind of (bear with me!) resembles/reminded me of Denis Johnson’s short story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” from Jesus’ Son (perhaps because a car crash occurs during both).

I was going to a party where I imagined that I would be noticed as an interesting person… (52)

“My Mother Breathing Light” : Centering around Gemma and her mother, death lingers in this story and hysteria develops between both women.

“Other Women” : To preface this one….Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the ones we love. Harvey seems to love everyone, he doesn’t hate. Women are gravitated to him. As far as third wheeling goes, Susu (his ex-wife) takes the cake. The narrator finds a tough time grasping her presence until she realizes that Harvey isn’t as helplessly innocent of any wrong doing as he looks.

“He was always  a sucker for the basket cases” (83)

“Kid MacArthur” : Gemma’s brother is finally introduced!

“The Architecture of California” : It isn’t easy to remodel yourself. A couple takes the challenge and tries to live healthy but as the wife comes to find out, it isn’t easy. Getting rid of a vice by substituting them with another vice is never the answer.

“The Battle of Fallen Timbers” : Short story done with exact precision. Not everyone moves on especially when living in the past.

“Snow Angel” : Written in the 3rd person, Marguerite, a young mother of two is stuck in a blizzard.

– and (the best was definitely saved for last) “Dog Heaven” : I urge everyone to read this. Listen to Tobias Wolff read it. It’s so worth it !

“I came to on the grass with the dog barking, ‘Wake up!’ he seemed to say. ‘Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!’” (165)

NOTE...dramatis personae was Tobias Wolff’s fancy word for the list of characters that mostly feature within a work…

P.S. …And he said no to Toby.