Wolff, Tobias (1975), Ugly Rumours, Allen & Unwin
When Tobias Wolff, the acclaimed short story writer and memoirist, published a novel called Old School in 2003, the publisher and many reviewers referred to it as Wolff’s ‘first novel’. In fact, it wasn’t. Ugly Rumours, his actual first novel, had been published in 1975. That same year he won a creative writing fellowship in Stanford, and only a few years before this he’d returned from his tour in Vietnam. There has been only one edition of Ugly Rumours, and it was never mentioned or discussed in promotional material issued by his publisher, all this at the author’s behest. Tobias Wolff repudiated the book, telling interviewers in recent years that reading portions of it made him ‘cringe’, and this disdain meant a slow fall into oblivion for Ugly Rumours. To this day it stays out of print and there is no notable interest in this book, even a search in academic databases comes up empty. A shame, really. Ugly Rumours is not a waste of time, although it’s certainly no masterpiece. It’s neither very innovative, nor particularly well written. Furthermore it’s indulgent, frequently complacent and derivative, curiously noncommittal for an autobiographically inspired work of fiction, and harsh in its moral conclusions. But it’s still interesting, it’s a smooth, quick read by what’s clearly a very talented young writer, with the right instincts and considerable skills. If you are interested in Wolff, especially if you’ve read This Boy’s Life (1989) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), his two volumes of memoirs, this book is worth reading. It’s certainly not worth the obscene prices that it fetches on the Internet, but if you can get your hands on it (e.g., through libraries), you might want to give it a try.
Ugly Rumours is not groundbreaking, and honestly, there isn’t much ground to break these days, as far as its setting and topic is concerned. Movies, novels, even video games about the war in Vietnam have become ubiquitous. From Things They Carried to Tree of Smoke, from Apocalypse Now to Good Morning Vietnam, we had our fill, and it’s become hard to entertain us, to tell a new story about this war that we seem to know so well. And in this light, it’s not terribly astonishing that Ugly Rumours doesn’t shock or surprise. But the real problem is elsewhere: Tobias Wolff’s debut novel lacks an energy, drive, and a feeling for the described situations. The novel can be described as almost mannered, distanced. Wolff focused on its odd sense of humor rather than upon the war that serves as a setting for it. And while the brutality of war (and the difficulty of describing it) has forced many writers to create books that are innovative of form or powerful in language and imagery, Ugly Rumours appears to stand aloof. Every page tells us that Wolff is a very talented writer, but one who doesn’t look eye to eye with his subject here, turns away, pushing jokes, and wooden dialogue between himself and the subject matter. The reader, even if he or she hasn’t read In Pharaoh’s Army, can’t help but feel the effort involved in this evasion. This is why the book, although it often aims for laughter, never feels light or fresh. When we laugh, it’s a stifled, affected laughter, and one which sucks all the life from the book. The book feels like a walk through a dimly lit, dusty house. It’s very well constructed, and there’s much to admire, and you may even enjoy your time there, but you’ll be glad to be out again.
All this means that if you come to this book with the expectations that its subject matter evokes, you’ll be disappointed: in many ways, Ugly Rumours just isn’t the kind of novel that one would expect from a war novel, nor from an autobiographically tinged book. In spirit, I think, it owes more to books like Catch-22 and movies like M*A*S*H than to fellow war texts like Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) or O’Brien’s novels. In Ugly Rumours, Wolff shows himself less concerned with the details of warfare, with blood, murder, tactics and the jungle, than with his two protagonists who do not really ever see battle. Instead they drink away their nights, joke around, get laid, cheat, scrounge and talk. They never wanted to fight or be endangered and so they bribed their way into a situation that would keep them safe in one of the least safe places for an American soldier in those days. And when we do see battle, gore or mayhem, we find that Wolff hasn’t yet found the language or structure to properly deal with this. The stark brutality of the situations in question does shine through each time but I think it can’t help but do so in a vaguely competent hand. The fact remains that Wolff seems intent on keeping us away from the action, offering us a glimpse, but moving away again swiftly. The problem is not the length of these scenes: in these small situations, we can already see the nascent short story master, with his ability to compress a lot of meaning and feeling into one, almost emblematic, scene. But this early in his career, he hasn’t yet overcome a distance and a stiffness that hurts the emblematic quality; the violence and shock doesn’t work as you feel it should or could.
You can, however, see that these scenes are very well-constructed and reasonably well-placed in the book, and no matter how disappointing these passages are, there is raw talent that keeps shining through, and a glittering intelligence. This is true for the whole book. I’ve already mentioned part of its plot, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t all take place in Vietnam. We are actually introduced, in a slow and considered manner, to the two central characters, Christopher Woermer and his friend Stanley Grubbs. Grubbs is a big, tough man, who “liked people to say what they meant.” He used to be a criminal teenager, until he was taken in by a priest, who encouraged him to use his talents. In the army he met Woermer, who is the main protagonist. Not only does Woermer have a name of Germanic origin like Wolff, his vita also conspicuously mirrors many elements in Wolff’s own life. Readers of This Boy’s Life will recognize “Toby/Jack Wolff”’s stepfather Dwight in the descriptions of Woermer’s stepfather, but they might also be puzzled at the cold treatment of Woermer’s past history. We learn that Woermer’s stepfather had a profound influence on the way Woermer lives his life, but this is empty, uninvolving information. It could have been used to bring Woermer, as a character, alive, by introducing a biography that unites all his odd traits and preoccupations. Instead, it serves as just another one of his odd qualities.
Woermer feels awkwardly constructed. He is an opportunistic character, one who likes to put on a show, wear a clean and ironed uniform to impress men and women alike. He would wear forged medals if he didn’t fear to be exposed. Being a soldier, for Woermer, is all about the reputation that you’ll have afterward, about the mysterious and heroic air that someone, returning from their tour abroad, can put on display. On the other hand, it is his stepfather’s drills and discipline that made him into what is actually a quite able soldier. He can shoot, make his bed, and organize the personnel on a base when disaster breaks out. He just doesn’t like it much. There are many strange contradictions in Woermer’s character. On the one hand, he eschews authority, trying to push against the rules as much as he can, offending superiors, stealing jeeps and bribing his way through life. He’s a scrounger, an imp of sorts. On the other hand, his vanity, and the fact that he knows where to stop, that, indeed, he has an uncanny sense of when to stop, suggests a man who has no real issues with authority, who, in fact, reaffirms and supports it and its associated values at every turn. He is slow to make friends, but a raucous and chummy person. He is a ladies’ man but doesn’t appear to take much delight in the actual fucking. There’s nothing in Ugly Rumours that really connects all these traits, no narrative that explains the logic underlying these contradictions. The fact that Woermer’s biography could have been such a connectional narrative becomes clear if we consider the complexities in This Boy’s Life, which shows that Wolff is, in fact, able to pull off the kind of characterization that is sorely missing from his debut novel.
It’s moot to unravel all these contradictions here, but one among them is remarkable in still other ways: neither Grubbs nor Woermer are womanizers. In many respects, Woermer is a ladies’ man, he knows how to impress women and invests quite a bit of time and effort into achieving just that, yet the actual sexual intercourse seems to disgust him or leave him, at best, indifferent, although he “tried his best to simulate interest; passion was beyond him.” Granted, the women we know him to have sex with, do sound a bit icky, but we only see them through his point of view, and his disinterest in the fairer sex could well color his perceptions. There is a homoerotic tension throughout the book, and even his fights and scuffles with authority often come down to a kind of teasing of his superior officers. Woermer, one might say, is a flirt. There are no actual homosexual acts in Ugly Rumours, but with an admirable consistency, Wolff creates an ambiguous perception of all the inter-male dealings in the book. This is something that is threaded through many books dealing with male cultures, and usually its not consciously done, but Wolff achieves a fascinating balance between making this outrageously obvious, thereby foregrounding something that is at best a subtext in other books, and lapsing into camp. Ugly Rumours is never campy, although I daresay it comes close sometimes. Its hard to say how the homoeroticism is supposed to work here, the use of father figures, the cultural context of army and church, one can’t help but see a potential that is wasted here, because Wolff’s novel is helplessly disparate, distant and cold. The artistic commitment, conviction and vision that usually makes novels like these cohere is largely missing.
Instead we get an assortment of motifs and tropes, although they are usually very well crafted. Perhaps the largest trope is the one suggested by the title. Despite the occasional awkward or wooden dialogue, any act of communication in the novel feels purposeful and replete with meanings, especially if writing is involved. Often we don’t quite know whether something is reliable, although Wolff switches the focus of his novel between his protagonists, and although we know or suspect that Grubbs and Woermer have been fed contradictory information, Wolff doesn’t opt for an easy exposure of errors. The vast majority of doubtful facts remains just that: doubtful, rumors. Newspaper articles and reports are skewed, but any kind of communication in Vietnam is suddenly problematic, unclear, bound to involve misapprehensions and confusions. It’s quite apt that near the end, an important message is not sent directly to the person who is meant to see it. Instead its pinned to a message board, in the hope that it will, after all, reach the right person, like a message in a bottle. The unclear quality of communications is reflected in the shadowy relationships between many characters. Although, sometimes, Wolff seems to reference the criticism of wartime bureaucracy and scheming of Catch 22 and books like it, Ugly Rumours lacks the lucid descriptions of the best of these books that keep the absurdities from collapsing into chaos. In Wolff’s novel there isn’t chaos, but he also toned down the criticism and the satire, which leaves the reader with what feels like an weak in-between effort, but this quality is part and parcel of the mistrust of communication that pervades the novel everywhere. To reproduce this trope on so many levels is very impressive, but doesn’t, necessarily, make for good reading.
This mistrust may be due to a personal mistrust of Wolff vis-à-vis autobiography. One can’t shake the impression that the autobiographical inspiration was both hampering and helpful. Helpful in the conception of the book, but hampering in the execution. In his actual memoirs we’ll see a writer who has perfected both the impulse to be truthful about his path and to be artistically flawless. His memoirs are so well written, structured, and arranged that they read like great fiction, and the artfulness of it all seems to have liberated Wolff to communicate fear, hurt and terror in a much more open fashion. Ugly Rumours is caught in a net of shame, not just shame about writing one’s self, but also shame about the things one did in the war. In his fine debut, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Tim O’Brien writes “Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyze them and live our lives and advice others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Wolff isn’t ready yet to “tell war stories”, which we see in what develops as the main moral fiber of the book: Grubbs is quietly berated by the priest (whose creation seems inspired by Victor Hugo’s Monseigneur Myriel) that merely not doing harm, by doing nothing, is not enough. “I’m glad”, the priest, Father Cavanaugh, writes, “to hear that you’re in a position where you don’t have to hurt anyone else. Just be sure in your own mind that doing nothing means that you’re not hurting anyone. Sometimes the only way we can be sure of that is to get out and help them.” There’s a suggestion here what being morally good means, a suggestion that, as the protagonists find, is certainly hard to follow, especially since we’re always happy to believe that doing nothing is good enough, and resisting to do a bad thing is sufficient. Ugly Rumours, to its credit, bears out Father Cavanaugh’s suggestion, summoning an immense amount of guilt and resentment until the dramatic finish.
In this moral line of thinking, Ugly Rumours is harsh on its characters, uncomfortable for its readers and harsh on its author. This is perhaps the most admirable thing of them all: a book powered by moral doubt and shame, not seeking easy resolutions, not needing to shock or devastate the reader through violence. The downside, however, is that the shame may have kept Wolff at this point in his career to come into his own as a writer. The book appears cobbled together, it keeps the reader at arm’s length and is very unevenly written. Some pages are tortuously dull and awkward, but now and then sentences shine with an intense brilliance. As a whole, it shows a writer who doesn’t have the breath and scope to make such a long narrative cohere, nor the ear to make dialogue work. Small wonder he found his voice when he wrote short stories and novellas. Even books like In Pharaoh’s Army consist of smaller pieces, each structured not like a chapter but like a proper short story. This is certainly an interesting book, and a reasonably entertaining read, as well. Read it for the instinct, the signs of craft, and the insight into the beginnings of a great writer, whose hand and voice is visible here already, if through a veil. In its best moments, there is a great pathos in Wolff’s words and we witness the gifted awakening of an uneasy literary spirit. For this alone, it’s worth a peek at least.
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