Tobias Wolff And The First Novels That Writers Wish Were Forgotten

Tobias Wolff And The First Novels That Writers Wish Were Forgotten

Out of pique or posturing authors occasionally disparage their early work. Saul Bellow referred to his pre-Augie output, Dangling Man and The Victim, as his Masters and PhD, respectively; “I find them plaintive, sometimes querulous,” he told The Paris Review. Anthony Burgess, 23 years and 30-some-odd novels after the publication of A Clockwork Orange, groused, “The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate,” and impugned it as “a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks[.]” John Steinbeck was only slightly more charitable towards Cup of Gold: A life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History, his 1929 first novel, calling it “an immature experiment written for the purpose of getting … all the autobiographical material (which hounds us until we get it said) out of my system.”

Other authors, not content with self-mockery, take matters even further. Nathaniel Hawthorne falls into this camp. Fanshawe, his first novel, which he published anonymously shortly after he left college, was so obscure — thanks in no small part to Hawthorne himself, who purchased copies just to burn them — it was unknown even to his wife. To this modern hack, it seems rather nutty of Hawthorne to send Fanshawe to the pyre just because the work happened to resemble Sir Walter Scott’s. His stubborn presentation of The Scarlet Letter as his cherry-popper, despite its publication 22 years after Fanshawe, suggests that writers do indeed worry that readers will, as Francine Prose put it in a 1992 Washington Post article on this phenomenon, “confuse their apprentice novel with their first.”

One such worrywart is Prose contemporary (and one-time subject) Tobias Wolff, a master of the short story and memoir. In 2003, the promise of what Publisher’s Weekly called a “first full-length novel” from the author of This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army was cause for excitement. His publisher, Knopf, played up what appeared to be an unprecedented departure: Famous short story writer births a novel! To this day, Knopf’s marketers describe Old School as a “shrewdly — and at times devastatingly — observed first novel.” And that’s almost true — the book is, in fact, perfect — but the blurb’s second-to-last word is a lie. It elides the existence of Ugly Rumours, a novel Wolff published nearly 30 years earlier.

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t feel too bad. Wolff’s 1975 novel has escaped the attention even of individuals for whom books are a livelihood. “It doesn’t ring any bells to me,” said the bookseller at Bauman Rare Books, who noted that the store’s copy (which can be yours for $1800) hadn’t moved since 2002. When I called the Strand, an irritated buyer told me that, no, he hadn’t heard of it, either. As for the New York Public Library, its single copy has been requested only once in seven years.

My initial interest in Ugly Rumours was a happy accident. In 2003, my boss at The New York Observer, displeased with my initial attempt at a review of the as-yet-unpublished Old School, ordered a rewrite — one with a little bite, if you please. The disclosure that Knopf had taken some liberties in their promotion of the book (discovered in ten minutes on LexisNexis) did the trick. How odd, I thought, that a writer whose output was marked by such clarity would allow an early work to be obscured. Only recently was I able to obtain a copy and see what had so bothered Wolff.

As befits a book that reportedly had a print run of less than a thousand, not much is known about the publication of Ugly Rumours. It was published only in England, by George Allen & Unwin in 1975, and retailed for £3.25. The book was written after Wolff returned from Vietnam and entered Oxford University, where he wrote two novels, one of which was lost “without any grievance on my part.” Ugly Rumours was reviewed twice, by the Times (UK), who compared it to Richard Hooker’s MASH, and praised the book’s climax as “realistic and horrible,” and The Times Literary Supplement, which sniffed that “too much of the novel prefers to avoid treating gravities gravely.” (London Review of Books chose to slag it in 2004). An advertisement for the book also appeared a single time in The Guardian.

And that’s it. Its publisher, George Allen & Unwin, no longer exists, at least not in any recognizable form. Shortly after Ugly Rumours came out, the house was absorbed by an Australian outfit. Asked for details about the book, the company professed ignorance (entirely believable) and sent me a Wikipedia link to the entry for Ugly Rumours. All traces of Wolff’s novel, pre-publication, appear to be gone.

This seems a shame. Wolff’s readers, most of whom will understandably refuse to shell out $1800 for the army green hardcover, are denied the pleasure of observing the true arc of a great author’s career. Predating Wolff’s Vietnam novella The Barracks Thief by nine years, Ugly Rumours is about two Special Forces buddies, Christopher Woermer and Stanley Grubbs, who attempt to survive their tour via “favourable assignments,” i.e., no combat. It’s an earnest narrative, following the men from the States to Vietnam — Wolff’s claim to have been influenced by Thomas Pynchon notwithstanding, it is not at all postmodern.

There are small traces of later Wolff, in both narrative and style: Woermer’s irritation in the novel’s opening pages at being called ‘college boy’ may remind readers of Anders’ rage at being addressed as ‘bright boy’ in “Bullet in the Brain”; the description of an Oakland Overseas Replacement Depot building that “memorialized the Depot’s only flirtation with contemporary standards of taste” is of apiece with modern-day Wolff’s lovely, nearly airless sense of humor; the concision of a scene in which Woermer lies to an English war correspondent:

Woermer, in desperation, tried to explain how it felt to have a mine go off almost under your feet, the sound so loud you could not hear it, the sudden lightness of body, all of it. But the right words would never come . . . His imagination took over from his memory. He led the scribbling Englishman through tiger-infested jungles, escapes from entire divisions of hardcore Vietcong, and daring daylight raids on enemy headquarters. Woermer told these lies without pleasure, because he saw the reporter had no respect for truth.

The book is far from perfect. Woermer and Grubbs are frequently indistinguishable and other characters are caricatured beyond belief. Some of the dialogue given to Sergeant Andrews, a black man — “Whuffo you want me to let you go, way you puts the bad mouth on me when I’m not here?” — is cringe-making and the writing is sometimes purple. But still, the child is very much father of the man.

The ends of Wolff’s works, memoirs and otherwise, are always disarming and beautiful. My favorite happens to be In Pharaoh’s Army, in which Wolff memorializes a dead friend:

The conclusion of Ugly Rumours, while not a gut-punch of that caliber, nonetheless recalls in its brutal simplicity the close of All Quiet on the Western Front. In a way, the horrific loneliness of being one of a mass of men dying in a foreign land as conveyed by Remarque is made even less bearable here, because Wolff, rather than leaving the reader with an image of our dead protagonist, spends the last moments with his murderer:

The Ranger stared at Woermer’s shuddering body. Then, like a man waking from a long sleep to find something unclean in his hand, he looks at his rifle. He dropped it and melted into a sea of cripples.

I don’t believe this is writing of which Wolff ought to be ashamed. But over the years, he’s repeatedly deployed a single adjective to describe Ugly Rumours: “terrible.” When asked about it in 2003, around the time of the publication of Old School, he told The San Francisco Chronicle, “I can’t just bald-faced sit here and say to you that I haven’t written another novel,” lamenting that it “turns up now and then in booksellers’ catalogs, sometimes for five times what I was paid for it — not because it’s good but because it’s rare. It’s like a postage stamp of which only three copies survive or a gun that Colt only made two of.” (In that same Post article mentioned earlier, novelist Ron Hansen mentions that Wolff once asked him — “as a friend” — not to read it.)

I emailed Wolff in the hope that he might want to discuss the work. He replied:

I appreciate your interest in this novel, and respect your judgment, though I must confess it is very different from my judgment. I have no wish to spoil anyone’s pleasure in a book, especially one of my own books; it’s like serving someone a meal and then badmouthing it and mocking your guest for liking it. It’s just that I have no feeling for the book now, no interest in it, and no interest in attracting attention to it by talking about it.

Elon Green writes supply-sider agitprop for ThinkProgress and Alternet.