Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs
By Tobias Wolff
Ecco Press

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 facts straight.
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.

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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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