By Juan Haines
When Tobias Wolff came to San Quentin State Prison on June 15 to sit in Zoe’s Class-Creative Writing, the class had already read his short story, The Chain.
The story begins with Brain Gold remembering the day a dog on a chain attacked his daughter.
It should be put down. It was crazy, a menace, and it was still there, waiting to tear into some other kid, because the police refused to do anything.
As the story goes on, Wolff’s interjection of small, seemingly insignificant details about the characters gives readers a familiarity that feels natural and relatable.
Gold loved his daughter’s face. He loved her face as a thing in itself, to be wondered at, studied. Yet after the attack he couldn’t look at Anna the same way.
Brain thinks justice would be best served by retaliating against the dog, while his cousin, Tom Rourke, considers revenge the better form of justice.
How justice is supposed by Tom influences his choice about how to eradicate the problem, which could be a draw to some readers. However, the slippery slope of right and wrong gets muddled in The Chain, as common sense takes a back seat to the instant gratification for how Brain and Tom define justice.
After the deed was done, Brain felt a deep sense of guilt for acting on vengeance, in addition to the strong sense of indebtedness to his cousin for doing something he thought he couldn’t do.
Brain knew he had to redeem himself.
He could feel his own rage, and distrusted it. Only a fool acted out of anger. No, he would do exactly what was fair, and nothing more.
What a lot of prisoners have learned from the various rehabilative programs: true behavioral change only happens when the perpetrator of crime gains insight into the causal factors of why they’ve committed the offense. Next, we learn the impact that our criminal acts have had on the crime survivors. We have come to the realization that the lack of insight for personal behaviors typically leads to bad decisions, mistakes, errors in judgment, and an inability to understand accountability.
When all of the events that occur in The Chain are realized neither Brian nor Tom was able to connect their choice to fairness and justice.
Wolff said the idea for the plot started from a true event, in that there was a dog on a chain and the dog did attack someone. However, the flare that made it a profound story came from his creative mind, seeking a better understanding of the unintended consequences of revenge.
The Chain is available upon request. Your comments would be greatly appreciated.