Although relatively unknown as an author, Tobias Wolff has been supported in his writing by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Writing Center at Stanford University, and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation. Winner of the O. Henry Award, Wolff is a graduate of Oxford and Stanford Universities. He was born in Alabama, grew up in Washington State, and now lives in upstate New York. Most of the stories collected in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs originally appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Antaeus, Mademoiselle, Tri-Quarterly, Encounter, and Vogue. Wolff’s narrative gift is unmistakable; his stories blend satire, tragedy, and dark humor in an unpredictable and memorable style.
No one story stands out as typical, but Wolff’s ability to draw memorable characters does stand out. Although Wolff’s skill is greater in drawing male characters than female, one of his best female characters is the protagonist of the title story. Mary, of “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” is a woman who has compromised her integrity by always playing safe, always keeping her opinions to herself. Over the years as a college teacher of history, she has written out her lectures and carefully espoused only noncontroversial opinions. After the financial failure of the college where she teaches, Mary has to take an undesirable position in a state where the climate is detrimental to her health. A few years later when Louise, a former colleague, invites Mary to return to New York for an interview at an upstate college, Mary anticipates better times.
Wolff subtly develops hints, however, that Louise has merely invited Mary to the interview as a formality. A student’s careless remark confirms Mary’s suspicions that in reality she has no chance for the position. Mary’s realization about the interview prompts her to discard Louise’s paper, which she planned to read because Louise had neglected to tell Mary until the last minute that she would be expected to present a paper. Instead, Mary lectures extemporaneously about the unspeakable tortures inflicted upon two Jesuit priests by Iroquois Indians. When she exhausts her store of facts, she speaks like a missionary herself and claims to give the last words of one of the priests before his heart was cut out and eaten by the savages: “Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.’” Clearly Mary identifies with the plight of the missionary, and the desperation of her impassioned public statement indicates Louise’s deception, causing Mary to feel that, like the missionary, her heart has been cut out of her.
Civilized people exploit and are exploited by other supposedly civilized people in another tale, “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke.” Like the title story, it tells of treachery perpetrated under the veneer of friendship; both stories tell of shallow, sarcastic, insensitive people who treat one another in inhumane ways.
The stuffy Professor Brooke of “An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke” resents his dashing colleague Riley because, according to gossip, women find Riley irresistible. At a convention, to which Brooke and Riley travel together, Brooke meets a lonely woman, Ruth, who invites him to her home for the evening. An attractive blond, Ruth is a genuine, sensitive person, who rather naïvely admires Brooke because he has written two scholarly books. Ruth has lost her hair as a result of chemotherapy, and her revelation of her baldness to Brooke when she really did not have to make herself so vulnerable demonstrates the depth of her character. Despite her condition, she loves life and has found the inspiration in poetry to want to live, but Brooke considers the kind of poetry she likes silly and sentimental. He listens to her read it, however, and then spends the night with her. After he returns to his home, Brooke finds anonymous love poems, undoubtedly from Ruth, in his mailbox at the university. Brooke’s wife suffers from doubt about her marriage when she smells strange perfume on his clothing. As for Brooke, he rationalizes his callousness toward Ruth and the betrayal of his wife; the experience has bolstered his ego. He now feels that he has that allure for women that he envied in Riley: “From now on he would sit in the front of the church and let Riley, knowing what he knew, watch him. He would kneel before Riley as we must all, he thought, kneel before one another.”
The stories usually involve relatively little plot or action. “Wingfield,” for example, unfolds almost entirely as a memory, but despite its slight plot, it has a powerful effect. In this first-person account, an ex-GI tells of his memories of his buddy, Wingfield, a country boy who had been a very easygoing soldier. The narrator recalls that during war games he sneaked up behind Wingfield to take him by surprise, an easy move because Wingfield had built a fire in violation of the rules of the maneuvers. The narrator also recalls how “with hatred and contempt and joy I took him from behind, and as I drew it across his throat, I was wishing that my finger was a knife.” A few months later in the Mekong Delta, the narrator’s company was attacked, and he presumed the missing Wingfield dead. Later in civilian life, the narrator receives letters from another member of the company, Parker, but does not answer Parker’s inquiries about other members of the company, rationalizing that the letters “were full of messages for people who weren’t alive any more.” Nine years after the soldiers have left Korea, Parker, with his wife and daughter, drops in on the narrator one evening. During the course of the conversation, Parker mentions that he recently saw Wingfield sleeping on a bench in a train station. After Parker leaves, the narrator sits alone and drinks wine until he falls asleep: these seemingly commonplace actions identify the narrator with Wingfield and, although the narrator may not realize it, he is not alive any more.
Wolff’s plots are often dramatizations of moral choices or dilemmas through which he allows the reader greater insight into his first-person narrators than they have into themselves. The narrator of “Smokers” meets Eugene, a boy from Oregon, on the train as both are traveling to school in Connecticut. The narrator is a social climber and does not want to associate with a scholarship boy such as Eugene, but he does want to impress Talbot, whose father is wealthy and has some claim to fame as a race-car driver. The narrator finds that tennis is not the way to impress Talbot, but he eventually learns that he can help Talbot with English Composition. The moral dilemma develops when school authorities find Eugene in a smoke-filled room where Talbot and the narrator have been doing the smoking. Eugene is expelled for the offense of smoking. The narrator’s conscience almost prompts him to go to the Dean on Eugene’s behalf, but he rationalizes the moral choice this way:For all I know,...