[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
By Tobias Wolff
Reviewed by John Lehman
What does it mean to be a great writer? Is it a matter of being good with
words, having some special insight, being an acute observer? After you've
read Tobias Wolff's collection of short stories, In the Garden of the
North American Martyrs, you may still not be able to define great writing,
but you will know you have experienced it. This is arguably the finest collection
of short stories ever written.
Each piece quickly pulls the reader into a dramatic relationship between
different types of characters who you will swear are more real than people
you know. Wolff uses ordinary words with razor sharpness and the situations
are so portentous I found myself reading more precisely than usual in order
to uncover clues to answers it seemed important for me to find.
For example, what do you do about a couple fighting each night in the house
next door ("Next Door"), a dorky roommate you're saddled with
at school when there's someone you think "cool" who you want to
take his place ("Smokers"), or being invited to a job interview
only to discover they don't want to hire you but are required to consider
at least one woman as an applicant by policy ("In the Garden of the
North American Martyrs").
There are no quick answers or gimmicky endings here. Somehow that would
seem a betrayal of the heightened reality of these subjects. Here are the
first few sentences from "The Liar." Notice how quickly Wolff
jumps from a harmless observation to the foreboding elements that become
the heart of the story's conflict.
My mother read everything except books. Advertisements on
buses, entire menus as we ate, billboards; if it had no cover it interested
her. So when she found a letter in my drawer that was not addressed to her
she read it. "What difference does it make if James has nothing to
hide?" -- that was her thought. She stuffed the letter in the drawer
when she finished it and walked from room to room in the big empty house,
talking to herself. She took the letter out and read it again to get the
The stories are so intense you would only want to read one or two at a time.
But isn't that the way to savor a fine meal or vintage wine -- consume them
slowly? And these are very enjoyable, accessible, thought provoking gems.
What makes a great writer? Someone who brings a special richness to the
act of reading. In my opinion Tobias Wolff is not only a true artist, but
a writer who gives his audience the chance to feel what it's like to be
artists themselves. That's the ultimate gift. This book is not to be missed.
the Garden of the North American Martyrs from Amazon.com
titles by Tobias Wolff
John Lehman and his wife, Talia Schorr, own the Night Heron Bed, Books and
Breakfast in the Cambridge-Rockdale area of southern Wisconsin. John is
a poet, short story writer, and publisher of Rosebud,
a national magazine for people who enjoy good writing.
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