One Paragraph: Tobias Wolff, “Smorgasbord”

“Smorgasbord” is included in Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins, a collection of both old and new short stories, and it exemplifies his talent for subtly tracking a character’s emotional shifts. The narrator is a prep-school student on scholarship who can’t afford to go home on break; Crosley is a classmate; Linda is the stepmother of a fellow student they barely know, and who they suspect is the son of a Latin-American dictator. The smorgasbord they wind up going to is miles below Linda’s station, and she’s clearly taking it in with mild amusement. For the narrator, however, this is his big chance—to prove his virility, his classiness, his proper place in the prep-school order. In this moment you can see how his perspective on the restaurant shifts from acceptance (we know he’s gone there plenty; it’s cheap) to contempt:

Linda smoked another cigarette while we ate. She watched the other tables as if she were at a movie. I tried to eat with a little finesse and so did Crosley, dabbing his lips with a napkin between every bulging mouthful, but some of the people around us had completely slipped their moorings. They ducked their heads low to shovel up their food, and while they chewed it they looked around suspiciously and circled their plates with their forearms. A big family to our left was the worst. There was something competitive and desperate about them; they seemed determined to eat their way into a condition where they would never have to eat again. You’d have thought they were refugees from some great hunger, that outside these walls the land was afflicted with drought and barrenness. I felt a kind of desperation myself, as if I were growing emptier with every bite I took.

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