‘Say Yes’ by Tobias Wolff

Wolff, Tobias 1985a

Say Yes by Tobias Wolff, 1985

The magic trick:

Using a skeletal structure and minimal language to create characters and a total sense of their life together

I find Tobias Wolff to be a strange writer in that the difference between his best stories and not-the-best stories is so great. Perhaps this highlights just how good his best work is (some of the best short stories I have ever read). But I also think it speaks to a lack of foundational skill set. When he’s not working with top-flight material, what does he have to fall back on? I’m not really sure. Maybe intense understanding of human psychology? Somehow it doesn’t seem enough to lift a story like today’s feature, “Say Yes,” out of the muck of bland contemplations over first-world problems.

It’s minimalistic in its prose and structure – pretty much just a quick sketch of a middle-aged married couple somewhere in middle-class America. Yawn. As such, it’s a pretty good study in how to describe characters quickly, portray a life situation believably, and earnestly ponder the feeling of aging. I suppose you could do worse. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.

The selection:

“I know,” she said, “but let’s just say.”

He took a deep breath. He had won the argument but he still felt cornered.

“Say what?” he asked.

“That I’m black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you marry me?”

He thought about it.

“Well?” she said, and stepped close to him. Her eyes were even brighter. “Will you marry me?”

“I’m thinking,” he said.

“You won’t, I can tell. You’re going to say no.”

“Since you put it that way—”

“No more considering, Yes or no.”

“Jesus, Ann. All right. No.”


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