Holy shit. HOLY SHIT. Tobias Wolff can write. In Pharaoh's Army has been a pleasant read, and the American Mastodon is glad that a friend gave it to him. But he was not prepared for the last 20 pages of the book. Wolff's prose always sparkles and snaps, always stays clear and consistent, but the summation of these memoirs in the final chapters was something perfect, something precise. It was simply the culmination of a wonderfully realized personal history, written in a way that only Wolff can claim - one that speaks so perfectly to us, yet conveys thoughts and emotions complicated and wrenchingly shameful; facetious honesty, perhaps, but still true, and always powerful.
In this passage, he is trying to impress a girl at a bar by telling her a story, but in the middle of telling it, realizes how awful it is, how awful he was to have done the act in the first place, and then how awful to be telling it again:
How do you tell such a horrible story? Maybe such a story shouldn't be told at all. Yet finally it will be told. But as soon as you open your mouth you have problems, problems of recollection, problems of tone, ethical problems. How can you judge the man you were now that you've escaped his circumstances, his fears and desires, now that you hardly remember who he was? And how can you honestly avoid judging him? But isn't there, in the very act of confession, an obscene self-congratulation for the virtue required to see your mistake and own up to it? And isn't it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people's houses apart? And in the end, who gives a damn, who's listening? What do you owe the listener, and which listener do you owe?
There are better passages, just as the book is filled with better writing. But there's something about the line And isn't it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people's houses apart? that I doubt anybody else could have written.
Next time the American Mastodon is in Syracuse, Tobe, he's buying you a drink.