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Originally published Friday, April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lingering memories of love and regret

"Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories" by Tobias Wolff Knopf, 379 pp., $26.95 When Tobias Wolff comes to town on Friday, it will be...

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Tobias Wolff

Author discusses "Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories," 7:30 p.m. Friday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

"Our Story Begins:

New and Selected Stories"

by Tobias Wolff

Knopf, 379 pp., $26.95

When Tobias Wolff comes to town on Friday, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Wolff, as readers of his memoir "This Boy's Life" will know, spent part of his youth in West Seattle and in the upper Skagit River Valley town of Concrete. A number of tales in "Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories" have a local connection, including "Deep Kiss," the best of the 10 new stories in this generous collection.

Indeed, "Deep Kiss" suggests that a part of Wolff never left the place, even though he's spent most of his adult life in upstate New York and Northern California. "Deep Kiss" may not be directly autobiographical, but it draws knowingly on Wolff's familiarity with the region as it addresses the might-have-beens of a man's life.

Wolff establishes the framework of the story in two packed opening sentences: "When Joe Reed was a boy of fifteen, his craziness over a girl became such a burden to his family, and such a curiosity to the small town where they lived, that his mother threatened to pack him off to his married sister in San Diego. But before this could happen Joe's father died and his mother collected a large sum from Northwestern Mutual, sold the family pharmacy, and moved both Joe and herself to California."

What follows is a shorthand chronicle of Joe's life: his love affairs, his medical studies, his marriage and a move to Seattle that puts him back in shouting distance of his Concrete-like boyhood hometown. But these events hold scarcely any weight against the continuing "phantom life" he constructs around the girl he left behind. From the memory of one kiss he's able to make "everything else, or everything else made itself, for that was how it happened — without any effort of imagination or sense of unreality, he watched his life with Mary Claude go on as he had once believed it would."

The result is a masterful story about the alternate existences we sometimes imagine for ourselves when we've been yanked from our surroundings. The compression of so much life, both actual and speculative, into one precisely turned tale is typical of the artistry that won Wolff the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1989.

Other new stories attain the same standard of excellence. "Awaiting Orders," about a gay Army sergeant weighing his options in the "don't ask, don't tell" era, is unexpected subject matter for Wolff, given how many of his blue-collar characters tend toward homophobia. But it's impeccably done.

"That Room" slips from a boy's memories of a summer-farmhand job to his recognition, in middle age, of the traps laid by fate, all in a mere four pages. "Down to the Bone" pits filial duty against sexual impulse, in a tale about a man making burial arrangements for his dying mother ... and finding himself far too drawn to the female funeral director.

The 21 selected stories drawn from Wolff's first three collections offer moments of perfection too. The title character in "The Liar" is a boy whose wild fabrications emerge as a mordant/exuberant response to his world. "Soldier's Joy" tersely traces a peacetime crisis on an army post that's clearly Fort Lewis. And "Firelight," about a mother and her teenage son down on their luck and looking for an affordable apartment in Seattle's University District, is an exquisite study of mother-son dignity and rapport under pressure.

Another Seattle-set gem: "Two Boys and a Girl," in which complications of attraction and betrayal subtly play out.

Wolff is at his best when he's working in this quiet, intuitive mode. Other tales haven't aged as well. "Next Door" and the title story from "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" — both O. Henry Award winners — now feel too brittle, too contrived. A better story from "Martyrs" — "Smokers," about boarding-school transgressions and power games — isn't included here.

Even a few of the new stories disappoint. "Her Dog," with its laboriously imagined human-canine dialogue, feels precious and stuntlike. "Nightingale" raises alarms with its very premise: What parents would send their shy son to a military academy they hadn't investigated?

Still, in its best moments, this retrospective places Wolff in the first rank of American storytellers. "Story" also highlights his stature as a key voice of our region ... even if it's close to 50 years since he lived here.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com.

He has been The Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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