"The Deposition" by Tobias Wolff

New Yorker fiction -- February 6, 2006 issue

yellow light
I really wanted to give this a green stoplight, but something wouldn't let my fingers do that, and I can't really recommend it as a good Wolff short story. Not that it's not good, but I suspect, and you're not going to believe this, that it may in fact be ... did you guess? A novel excerpt. Of course, we're not allowed to know for sure, but not a lot happens in the piece, which begins by blurting itself in media res and ends with that chapter taste. Plus consider the "Contributors" blurb for this master short story writer: "Tobias Wolff is the author of seven novels, including Old School. He teaches at Stanford."

In the story, er, narrative, a lawyer named Burke goes on break in the middle of deposing a witness in a malpractice lawsuit. This witness holds a certain key piece of testimony supporting his client's case, but now that he's to go on the record, the fellow is having a bout of temporary amnesia. Burke walks through the town, New Delft, NY, down to the river, and the thing is worth reading if only for its bitingly terrific descriptions of the bleak comatose wasteland that used to be small-town America:
He looked away and walked on, past an old movie theatre with empty poster casings and a blank marquee; past a dog-grooming salon, its windows filled with faded snapshots of a man with orange hair grinning over various pooches made ridiculous by his labors; past a five-and-dime converted to a Goodwill, and a tailor shop with a "Closed" sign in the window. On the corner stood an abandoned Mobil station, windows boarded over, the pumps gone.
It reminds him of his home town in Ohio (Burke now lives in San Francisco and has come back east only to work on this case):
..Burke couldn't imagine anyone living there. To be on such comfortable terms with exhaustion and decline... It seemed to him that for all the talk of family and faith and neighborliness -- the heartland virtues held up in rebuke of competitive, materialistic Gomorrahs like San Francisco -- there was something not quite wholesome in this placidity, something lazy and sensual.
The whole country was being hollowed out like this, devoured from the inside, and nobody was fighting back. It was embarrassing, vaguely shameful, to watch people get pushed around without a fight.
I was all, right on, brother! I have felt that very sentiment countless times in Indiana, Iowa, Illinois... there is something "shameful" in the slow decay of a once-proud and strong civilization. And I've also felt this:
Burke knew the whole story and it disgusted him, especially the workers who'd let the owners screw them like this while patting them on the head, congratulating them for being the backbone of the country, salt of the earth, the true Americans. Jesus! And still they ate it up, and voted like robbers instead of the robbed. Served them right.
What the fuck is the matter with Kansas anyway? But beyond Burke walking around and the reader chuckling/putting fist in the air, which goes on longer than I expected, there is only a short flurry of events toward the end (spoiler alert): Burke is smitten by a beautiful girl getting off a bus, follows her, muses on her black lipstick, and frightens her when they nearly collide. Then he heads back to the office, where he is late for the resumption of the deposition, only to be hailed by a police cruiser, out of which climbs a cop, the girl Burke encountered, and a gray-haired woman whom we are to take as her mother. It's then that Burke realizes how young the girl is. Burke resorts to lawyer mode and smooth-talks his way out of the "stalking" accusation the girl has brought. But he is not let go until the mother slaps him and calls him a "liar."

It's a pretty cool, if abrupt and unexpected climax. Strangely, Burke finds this slapping almost refreshing. Of course he is a liar, I mean lawyer, and he did have an unwholesome attraction to the teenager. And he needs to go do some slapping himself, in a way, to the witness who's waiting for him.

But doesn't that seem like a chapter? I don't think it works fully as a short story. How do these events relate to the case he's working on? Maybe thematically, somehow, but it's not obvious. Seems like there'd be more details on that -- otherwise, why have it in there? Why not just a travelling salesman or whatever? The piece is so well written, perhaps, that my expectations were raised, and then slapped away in the end. As a story it's a little thin, uneven, and not quite satisfying. As a chapter, though, it rocks. As do many of his perfect stories. I've never read any of Wolff's novels, but I'll be keeping an eye out for the next one.

1 comment:

Roger Marks said...

After reading the story twice, I felt uneasy about it. The Deposition felt incomplete to me; it seemed to be lacking some convergence linking Burke's trial with the incident with the girl and the cop, and how that leads to some greater truth or vision.

I agree that the prose was vivid, but still the piece lacks closure. I hadn't thought of Novel Excerpt until I came to this site, but now it seems like an insightful conjecture.

I am glad I came across this site, becuase I did so by Googling "Tobias Wolff The Deposition analysis." I wanted to see what others had to say about a block of prose that I didn't feel right letting be as a short story.