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Hunters in the Snow by Tobias Wolff

Hunters in the Snow

by Tobias Wolff

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These are bleak stories! What unifies them is Wolff’s focus on man’s selfishness and lack of concern for others. What made me want to keep reading them was Wolff’s style, so unforced and so engaging. I think this genre really suits his way of writing as it allows him to give these vignettes which capture in an understated way how people feel. The stories don’t lack a certain grim humour either, such as the shot man lying in the freezing cold bed of a truck thinking he’s being driven to hospital when in fact ‘he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back’ – because his ‘friends’ were so occupied with talking about themselves. The tone reminds me of Proulx’s in ‘Postcards’, though I suppose Proulx wrote her first novel some decade after Wolff wrote these stories. I wonder if she had read them.

I really like the way Wolff insinuates so much in simple description. ‘Passengers’ illustrates this well with 75 year old Howard on a week’s cruise with his wife, one he didn’t want to go on. He is gently tolerant of his wife who feels resentful of him and it emerges that Howard had an affair, probably a long time ago. On the cruise, though, the crass (and adulterous) steward, Tweed, keeps making references to their golden wedding anniversary but the reader is aware of how sadly different is the reality to the outward perceptions. So, at the fancy dress dinner at the end, when Howard dances with his 78 year old wife dressed as Venus with plastic leaves in her hair ‘to give the costume a Greek accent’ and he feels when she pressed her cheek to his ‘the plastic leaves crinkled against his forehead’, we’re aware of the artificiality of the situation and Howard’s lack of fulfilment despite his repeated protestations that ‘marrying Nora was the smartest thing I ever did’.

Wolff tells the stories in both the first and the third person. There’s the same economy of style in both. In ‘Wingfield’ after describing how on a training exercise they took another group by surprise ‘firing into the tents and into the shocked white face at the tent flaps’, he goes on to say ‘it was exactly the same thing that happened to us a year and three months later as we slept beside a canal in the Mekong Delta, a few kilometres from Ben Tré’. That’s all he says about that experience but it’s enough to suggest a lot more. When writing in the first person there’s a distance between his voice and the character he writes about which is mildly judgemental. Thinking about the way he later inspects his plates that a visitor has washed up, he says ‘the thought came to me that this was a fussy kind of thing for a young man to do’, once again suggesting that his experiences have had an impact on him.

Reading this book was enhanced for me by the edition, a Jonathan Cape hardback with an attractive font. What a difference it makes when you can so easily and pleasantly access the writing. I see now that this title is probably the one chosen for its English release and it's the same collection of stories as 'In the garden of North American Martyrs', his first American collection. Perhaps the English thought 'Hunters in the Snow' sounded more mainstream and sellable. ( )
  evening | Jan 28, 2013 |
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An unnerving tale of self-absorption and deception by short-story master Tobias Wolff Three friends are leaving the suburbs of Spokane on a hunting trip. Kenny is the prankster, harsh and mean. Frank is laid-back and full of idealism. Tub is overweight, sensitive, and the brunt of everyone's jokes. Searching for tracks in the snow, the trio has little luck until they spot a set of deer prints heading into a nearby farm. Kenny, desperate for a token of their difficult journey, insists that they ask the farmer's permission to hunt on his land. But as they set out in the fading sunlight, things go terribly wrong and what appears to be an accident becomes more and more questionable as strange events call each man's character into question.… (more)

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