The Rich Brother by Tobias Wolff, 1985
The magic trick:
Using the episode with Webster the hitchhiker as a microcosm for the story’s key questions
Tobias Wolff takes aim at some of life’s biggest questions here. By what do we measure success? Which is greater – faith or practicality? What is happiness? He uses the episode at the story’s climax, involving a hitchhiker named Webster, to neatly present these ideas.
Donald – the younger brother questing for love, family, and faith in lieu of material success – is fascinated by Webster’s tales of Peruvian gold mines. Pete – the older brother with all the trappings of 1980s suburban success including a nagging dissatisfaction – regards Webster with skepticism and condescension. Donald goes on to commit an act of great irresponsibility, though through this he also displays tremendous generosity and trust. Pete, on the other hand, can’t even fathom such a decision.
The reader is left to judge who is right and who is wrong. Which lifestyle, which approach to the world, is better? Which man is the rich brother of the title? It’s a lot to consider. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.
“That’s great,” Donald said. “That’s the way it ought to be.”
Pete said, “I’m willing to bet that you just happen to have a few shares left. Am I right?”
Webster made no reply.
“Well?” Pete knew that Webster was on to him now, but he didn’t care. The story had bored him. He’d expected something different, something original, and Webster had let him down. He hadn’t even tried. Pete felt sour and stale. His eyes burned from cigar smoke and the high beams of road-hogging truckers. “Douse the stogie,” he said to Webster. “I told you to keep the window down.”
“Got a little nippy back here.”
Donald said,” Hey, Pete. Lighten up.”