In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff


In the Garden of the North American Martyrs is chronologically the first of Tobias Wolff’s three short story collections, but the last that I read, as I had already read The Night in Question and Back in the World. (Technically there are other Wolff collections, but I think they all just repackage the stories from these three, with or without a few additional stories. These three are at least the “main” collections.)

The twelve short stories in this collection are indeed all fairly short, ranging from six pages to twenty-one pages.

The first is Next Door, one of the two six-pagers. A husband and wife watch and mostly listen to the white trash couple next door fighting and carrying on at all hours of the night.

The story nicely captures the creepy, disconcerting feeling of having your personal space violated by crude, abusive people and not having any good options of how to deal with it.

The derelicts next door don’t directly physically assault the couple—though the man does drunkenly stumble over and use their fence and flower bed as his personal bathroom, which it is implied is a regular occurrence—but the threat is always there, and there’s a kind of ongoing emotional assault just by the fact of their brutish behavior being so impossible to ignore.

They don’t sound like the kind of people you could realistically go over and have a friendly, respectful chat with, but if you handle things more aggressively and confrontationally then you invite retaliation and will likely find yourself in an escalating situation, one that people like them are probably far more comfortable with and good at than you are.

Confronting them by proxy—i.e., summoning the police—is just another way of inviting retaliation.

So they tolerate the situation and the discomfort it brings, just hoping things don’t get worse.

It’s a not at all uncommon situation, and one I’ve never found a solution to. I’ve experienced things like it—maybe not super close to the specific situation in the story, but just having obnoxious neighbors and feeling ill at ease and to a degree unsafe in my own home as a result.

The husband reflects how these people have seemingly settled into what looks from the outside like a not very positive life of yelling at each other and slamming doors and beating their dog and such, to the point that to them it just seems like a normal, acceptable way to live. And he thinks about how while the oft-remarked human capacity to adapt to pretty much anything is generally praised as a useful survival mechanism if not a virtue, you can make a case for it being one of our more unfortunate traits.

But then I think the story also invites you to turn that reasoning back on the husband, since he and his wife have adapted to the ugly situation they find themselves in rather than seeking to change it. Not to mention when you read between the lines it sounds like even independent of having to put up with these neighbors, their lives and their relationship are far from ideal, but they have adapted, more or less, to a mediocre, routine, not very rewarding existence.

Next Door is the kind of story that when I read it, it seemed kind of minor and inconsequential and I wondered what I could even write about it, but then the more I considered it the more it provoked various thoughts and emotions, including the consequences of being a non-confrontational person, and how tempting it can be to choose the devil we know over the devil we don’t know by tolerating what really isn’t an acceptable situation instead of risking taking action.

One of the many stories that highlights how good Wolff can be at suggesting the psychological dynamics between people without coming right out and describing them is Hunters in the Snow.

Three men are on a hunting trip, and you can infer just enough from what’s said about their interaction to get a sense of who they are and especially what kind of past they have had with each other.

I mostly appreciated the story, but I did think it gradually got less realistic toward the end. One of the men gets shot, and apparently pretty seriously wounded, but the other two show an odd lack of urgency about getting him to a hospital. The story kind of goes on as it had before—giving you snippets of their conversation and such so you gradually gain more insight into them—but now this is happening in a wholly different context.

It’s like a story about a couple of clerks flirting in a convenience store, and then they continue flirting in the midst of an armed robbery.

Presumably it’s intentional on Wolff’s part, like maybe it’s supposed to tell us something further about their relationships that they’re willing to let this guy suffer and potentially die while they dawdle, but I liked the first 75% of this one more than the last 25%.

An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke is pretty much as the title would indicate—a slice of life tale about a college professor’s experiences at a weekend conference.

We see things from Professor Brooke’s perspective; we are told his observations, attitudes, emotions, etc. concerning the people and events of his weekend.

Brooke is the kind of guy who some would criticize as judgmental, arrogant, rigid, too prone to see things as black and white. Not saying those would be accurate criticisms, but he at least veers closer to those things than many people are comfortable with. He’s not extreme though, not a caricature, not an obnoxious prig.

But he feels a vague discomfort and disapproval toward a colleague he perceives as too flashy and possibly flexible in his morality (there’s evidence he sleeps with his students). In a case where on the merits granting tenure is probably not justified but the candidate’s life situation would incline many people to overlook his shortcomings so as to help him out, he favors principle over sentiment and votes against tenure. At the conference when he believes a speaker’s argument is clearly wrong he’s willing to say so frankly. When he finds himself in the company of decidedly low brow phenomena such as lame poetry, and the kind of people who don’t have the level of sophistication to understand why the higher brow stuff is superior, he’s very aware of what he has that such people lack.

But on the other hand, like I say he’s not at all obnoxious about it, which makes him a more appealing protagonist than he could have been, and the story more realistic than it could have been. He recognizes his attitude toward his “flashy” colleague as being superficial and so doesn’t have some kind of intense hatred of him that he seeks to justify. When he makes decisions of what to do or say based on what he sees as being right, he takes into account other considerations but regards them as being outweighed, and he avoids being insulting or cruel about it. (For example, his frank but substantive remarks against the thesis of the speaker at the conference are contrasted with another attendee’s taking a blatant cheap shot at the same speaker.) When he’s with a less sophisticated person, he doesn’t go out of his way to display his superiority, but in fact is conscientious about not making the other person feel stupid or insulted.

Then by the end of the story we see him bending on a lot of this stuff, realizing that maybe even the modest degree to which he’s judgmental is unjustified. He sees that just because something is low brow doesn’t mean it can’t have a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives, and he sees that it’s not just other people but he himself who can be tempted into cutting moral corners and acting in a less than principled fashion.

It’s not some huge dramatic change or awakening, but more of a modest increase in self-awareness to go along with the modest degree that he was rigid and judgmental to begin with.

An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke is a story that easily could have been constructed as satire, or as an easy opportunity to ridicule academia, a buffoonishly obnoxious professor, dolts who like greeting card-level poetry, etc., but other than with one character (a poet at a reading whose entire oeuvre apparently consists of poems about trees, and who clearly thinks himself fully deserving of the hero worship of his fans), that’s really not where Wolff chooses to go with it, and I think that makes it a stronger story.

Yet another example of how Wolff’s writing is understated without being hopelessly obscure is Smokers. Here again you can pick out certain themes, certain lessons, certain insights into human nature to reflect on, but you’re not hit over the head with them through exaggeration and caricature.

Like I’m sure is true of many or most fiction writers, Wolff builds on his own experiences without his stories being autobiographical except in the broadest sense. (Of course he does autobiography too: This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army.) Many of his stories are set in the Pacific Northwest, where Wolff spent many of his formative years. Hunters in the Snow, for instance, is set in eastern Washington, near Spokane.

The protagonist in Smokers is from Oregon. Like Wolff, he was then admitted to a snobby eastern prep school as a scholarship student, where he strived to fit in with the rich society kids.

As I say, the messages here are many (and some of them at least are easy for me to pick up on, in spite of my generally not being a good interpreter of fiction), yet they aren’t overdone. For example, we see in the story that kids make dubious decisions and behave inconsiderately (or worse) when they focus too much on being popular (especially being popular with the “right” people), that being too eager to connect with someone can leave you prone to exploitation, that being different or “weird” while being a social detriment doesn’t have to lead to total ostracism or social failure as people may appreciate at some level your being yourself, that having a lot going for you in terms of money and popularity and such isn’t necessarily correlated with being a good person otherwise, that taking a stand and doing the right thing can just as easily come from someone on the “bottom” in most of the ways that society judges, that life’s rewards and punishments are not consistently doled out according to merit, and on and on.

But these aren’t conveyed through dramatic, extreme incidents and descriptions. What happens in the story fits these themes to various degrees, but only to about the same extent that real life rather than didactic stories fits them.

Face to Face is a psychologically intriguing little tale about a woman on the rebound from a failed marriage and her tentative first steps into a possible relationship with a new guy.

The new guy is in some ways unusually polite and respectful. But it turns out to be sort of a way to cover up or postpone the manifestation of a social awkwardness, discomfort about relationships, sexual hang-ups, alcoholism, and even borderline abusiveness. It’s not phony as much as artificial. He’s trying to do the right thing and be on his best behavior, but he’s too damaged to sustain it.

This is one of the minority of Wolff stories told from the woman’s perspective. But even here there are reflections of his own life. The protagonist overlaps a significant amount with Wolff’s real life mother Rosemary. And the guy she’s getting to know even overlaps to some extent with Wolff’s real life evil stepfather Dwight. He’s not as evil certainly, though I suppose one could say that their relationship is still at a very early stage, and that Dwight himself hadn’t shown anywhere near the depth of his rottenness this early with Rosemary. So maybe they overlap more than I was first inclined to think.

But there’s still a sense that the guy in this story is a sympathetic character, in spite of his eventual ill behavior. He’s someone who has never really figured out this dating thing—or healthy interaction with other people in general—and seems doomed never to. Realizing this, the protagonist feels not anger towards him, but an overwhelming pity.

The protagonist of Passengers is Glen, a young man we find out over the course of the story is dominated by his employer/roommate Martin, who sounds like something of a ruthless Ayn Rand type. Glen is driving home from a business trip, in Martin’s car. He picks up a passenger, Bonnie, who seems a free-spirited young hippie chick, but he realizes when he gets a closer look at her that she is actually a middle-aged woman.

In some ways I’d expect to respond favorably to someone like Bonnie, but usually—in life and in fiction—if anything I have a viscerally negative reaction to this kind of person. It’s true that she has apparently avoided a lot of the soul-deadening traps and moral compromises that go along with living a conventional lifestyle, participating in the conventional economy with a conventional job, and playing by the rules—and that’s to be admired—but when you get right down to it she’s a deceptive, manipulative person who gives no evidence of having a conscience or much capacity for self-criticism.

She’s the sort of person who has kind of lived by her wits on the outskirts of society, in a way that has hardened her and made her an unapologetic egoist. I think her survival skills are a lot better developed than just about any other aspect of her. I doubt I would be very comfortable around her.

Then again, Glen has his issues too. Glen and a lot of Wolff’s characters have a sort of sadness about them, a sense that their life isn’t at all what they would like it to be, that they don’t really connect with people the way they would like, and that figuring out how to change any of that for the better seems so complicated and obscure as to be hopeless. I’m not describing it as well as I would like, but it’s a vague kind of dissatisfaction with life that when I read his stories I recognize in myself, even when in most respects there’s really not much overlap between me and a given character.

Routinely throughout my life I have taken stock of where I stood, and thought something along the lines of: “So what did I want out of life? Where did I want to be at this point? I don’t know, except not here. Not here. This isn’t right. I sure never thought it would turn out like this.” And I can imagine many of Wolff’s characters assessing their situations similarly.

Howard and Nora go on a cruise for their 50th wedding anniversary in Maiden Voyage. Howard is a crotchety World War I veteran, with a tendency toward quips that you could take as wry, surly, or refreshingly frank, as you wish. Think of him as a slightly less likable version of the Henry Fonda character in On Golden Pond.

Howard evidently had a great love in his younger days, but gave it up—or perhaps lost it—to marry “sensibly.” He describes marrying Nora as the “smartest” thing he’d ever done. He’s made his peace with the fact that he missed his chance to marry for love instead, though he’s clearly aware one never fully makes one’s peace with that. So is Nora.

Their dining companions on the cruise are a young newlywed couple. Rather than forego passion for being sensible, they have gone to the opposite extreme and embarked on an “open” marriage to maximize the passion.

There are already indications, though, that that too has its downsides, that whatever you settle for in marriage it’ll always be problematic, always generate at least some level of regret (unless you really do get to marry the love of your life I suppose).

Though its subject matter is not the cheeriest, I got more laughs out of Maiden Voyage than any other story in this collection. I liked when Howard responded to a question about their children from the unctuous social director with a sarcastic “Sharon’s retarded and Clifford is in jail,” and liked it even more when Nora corrected him only partially by clucking at him for saying their son was in jail.

Davis, the protagonist of Worldly Goods, resents what he interprets as insinuations that he is an overly practical, bland sort of fellow. So on impulse he buys a classic old car like the one a friend of his had had when they were boys.

Soon he gets into a fender bender, which turns out to send him down a slippery slope into areas of human behavior and ethical dilemmas that he doesn’t have the stomach for and just wishes would go away (and perhaps let him get back to his monotonous but safe life where he didn’t do things like spend thousands of dollars on an impulse purchase).

In dealing with the other driver, his insurance adjuster, various mechanics, and others, he’s lost trying to figure out who is honest and who is crooked, and who is on his side and genuinely trying to help him and who is tempting him into behaving unethically.

He sees—he thinks—things he doesn’t approve of and wants no part of, but he’s not the type to confidently, defiantly take a stand on principle. Really, as I say, he just wants it all to go away.

My appreciation for Worldly Goods was diminished just a bit by the fact that I found the ending unclear. That’s really unusual for these stories; in contrast to, say, David Foster Wallace’s fiction, where I’m thrilled if I have at least a general idea what’s going on 40% of the time, I almost always find Wolff’s writing crystal clear (though not thereby objectionably simplistic).

Is the implication that Davis is dreaming, or fantasizing, at the end? I’m not sure.

Wingfield, too, I found not quite as satisfying as most of the earlier stories. It’s about war, with the emphasis on the before and after. Much of it is about men training for war, then there are brief allusions to their being ambushed in Vietnam and suffering horrible casualties, and then another longer section where two of them meet years later to trade notes about those they’d known in training and what became of them.

It’s still a well-crafted story and all, but I’m wondering if maybe the reason it didn’t work quite as well for me as most of the preceding stories is a kind of disproportion between the style and the subject matter.

Normally Wolff’s understated way of approaching the vague little disappointments and imperfections of life illuminates certain minor but significant social and psychological phenomena that might otherwise go unnoticed. But killing and war and for that matter the abusive and dehumanizing training for it are so blatantly awful that the same nuanced approach seems somehow out of place.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs I mostly liked, but again feel I can’t put at quite the same level as most of the earlier stories.

It is the story of a college professor who after seeing a colleague lose his career over principle made a decision early in her career to “go along to get along,” to avoid putting herself in a similar position where she could be martyred. She develops an ingratiating style, and does very mainstream, unobjectionable—if perhaps dull and mediocre—scholarly work.

For many years this approach more or less works as intended, but eventually she finds herself for unrelated reasons in an unsatisfactory job situation. She is contacted by a former colleague about what is for her a highly desirable new position, with the implication being that she’d be highly likely to get it.

So she applies, gets invited for an interview, and gets her hopes up, only to eventually figure out that hers was a perfunctory affirmative action interview, that, in effect, her former colleague misled her.

She responds by scuttling the talk she was supposed to give at the teaching demonstration part of the interview and offering instead an extemporaneous lecture about historical atrocities, which evidently is something of a faux pas (an intentional one, in this case) that scandalizes the hiring committee audience.

I like most of the story, but the ending I’m not so sure of. I would expect in real life that a person like that would be more likely to slink off in shame and disappointment, wondering how her life could have gotten away from her and led her to this point, which is also exactly what I would expect in a Wolff story. Where he takes it instead seems just a little too theatrical and a little too out of character for this woman.

Plus, the message she ultimately concludes with in her talk is that the world needs more kindness and less cruelty, that when you “win” by being ruthless you really haven’t won, which perhaps is her way of condemning them for tricking her and inconsiderately using her to satisfy a requirement, whereas I would have preferred—if Wolff were going to grant her this dramatic moment at all—that she turn the light more inward and give a talk whose theme has something to do with having integrity, with not denying yourself and what you believe just to survive, with being willing to sometimes take a stand on principle even when doing so comes with a risk.

The protagonist of Poaching is another man not very satisfied with his life, hemmed in by the perceptions of others, stuck in mediocre relationships with his wife and kid, and not quite sure how he got here or what he can do about it.

He manages a bit more decisive action to shake up his life than many Wolff characters though, moving out to the country. His wife thinks he’s nuts and leaves him—though later in the story she comes back for a visit—and so it’s just him and his young son.

The story is mostly a slice of life of their early time adjusting to life in the country, though there is a plotline concerning his trying to find the source of rifle shots he hears on his land, presumably coming from a poacher.

One of the reasons Wolff appeals to me as a writer is his focus on human dynamics—what goes on inside and especially between people. So in a story like this, where many writers would give you an enormous amount about the weather, how the trees looked, how this kind of tool was used as opposed to that kind of tool, what the sun looked like coming over the mountains, the details of what had to be done to grow this or that kind of crop, etc., Wolff gives you about 10% that stuff and about 90% the emotional state of the protagonist, his reasons for self-doubt, his ambivalence, how he and his wife are and are not compatible, the clumsiness of his attempts to connect with his son, etc. And it just happens that that’s the kind of stuff I’m way, way more in tune with—in my life, in my writing, and in what I read. I’m fascinated by moral and psychological matters, and usually left cold by raw description of inanimate stuff.

In The Liar, the last story in the collection, Wolff again draws from personal experience. The protagonist is a teenage boy being raised by a single mother. He’s not a rotten kid in most respects, but he has a tendency to get into low level trouble, mostly due to his penchant for lying. All of which also describes the young Wolff we got to know in This Boy’s Life.

The story fills in some of the context of the protagonist’s life and lying: the family dynamics including his relationship with his now-dead father and how he differed from his siblings, his mother’s devout Catholicism, how she held the family together after the father’s death, his professional and personal relationship with the general practitioner—who is also a friend of the family—whom his mother sends him to for his lying as if he were a psychiatrist, which he is not, and so on.

In a blurb on the back cover of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Raymond Carver writes: “Who is Tobias Wolff and how does he come to be saying these absolutely true things about us? He has somehow gotten his hands on our shared secrets, and he’s out to tell everything he knows. I have not read a book of stories in years that has given me such a shock of amazement and recognition—and such pleasure.”

I thought of that quote often as I read this book, and found myself largely in agreement with it. Wolff is one of the most realistic and psychologically insightful writers I have read. I recognize myself in his characters. I recognize people I have known in his characters. Not in all the particulars, just in some little aspect of their character, their weakness, their disillusionment, their frustration, their rationalizations, what have you.

As I mentioned, this is the third Wolff short story collection I’ve read, though the first he wrote. I liked all three, but this is the one that most engaged me, that felt most real to me. As far as that goes, within this book I felt noticeably more impressed with the stories in the first half of the book on average than those in the second half, though I’m not saying those in the second half are failures by a long shot.

Is it possible that as good of a writer as he has been his whole career, his peak came at the beginning, that those earliest, youthful stories had the most intensity and best conveyed the truths of human behavior and relationships that he had discerned?

I’ve been a fan of Wolff’s writing since I first discovered him, and In the Garden of the North American Martyrs has bumped him up just a bit more in my estimation. Having now read his three short story collections and two memoirs, I’m open to exploring further by reading his novels.

Consulting Wikipedia, I see that he has written two novels—but one of which was written when he was very young, was published only overseas and never reprinted, and is pretty much unanimously dismissed, especially by him, as quite poor and better ignored—and a novella. I’m putting the non-awful novel and the novella down on my list of books to read in the future.


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