‘Mortals’ by Tobias Wolff

Mortals by Tobias Wolff, 1997

The magic trick:

Building a theme subtly behind the scenes of the story

“Mortals” begins as a simple, comedic scenario – a newspaper reporter is getting reprimanded for running an obituary about a man who didn’t die.

OK, so we figure this story is going to be about what happens to the poor, unfortunate reporter.

But it isn’t. Not really.

The focus shifts to the man who didn’t die – the subject of the obit. We begin to ponder his life. So that’s what the story is about, all right.

Except that isn’t right either. Not really.

Those were the obvious shifts. More subtly, Wolff has staged a consideration of identity, career choices, dreams, hope and responsibility.

The reporter hates his job and has been struggling along trying to write fiction. The man who didn’t die devoted 30 years to a job at the IRS. He wants some kind of reward for his time, some kind of recognition.

The theme sneaks up on the reader, stitched up within the story mechanics. This is really a story about the great American conflict between the desire to follow your dreams and the tug of social responsibilities. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.

The selection:

He leaned forward in his chair and gave his head a little shake, the way a horse will, and he said, “Clean out your desk.” I don’t think he meant to fire me. He looked surprised by his own words, but he didn’t take them back.

Givens looked from one to the other of us. “Now hold on here,” he said. “Let’s not blow this all out of proportion. This is a live-and-learn situation. This isn’t something a man should lose his job over.”

“He wouldn’t have,” Mrs. Givens said, “if he’d done it right.”

Which was a truth beyond argument.

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