The Liar Summary
by Tobias Wolff

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The Liar Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Liar” of the title is the teenage James, whose morbid lies are a cause of concern to his mother. When she discovers that James has written a friend with the false news that she is suffering from a mysterious illness, she feels compelled to call on Dr. Murphy, her friend and the family physician, to help cure James of his tendency to invent things and embellish on reality. James at this point begins an inner, psychological journey triggered by his conversation with the doctor. He begins to remember various incidents in his past that will lead to memories of his father’s death from cancer. This death is connected to the morbid lies James tells, but before he confronts his father’s death, he recalls other episodes in his past, especially a visit to Yosemite Park, one of the defining moments of James’s childhood.

His mother’s strength of character is brought home most cogently to James during this episode. When a bear wanders into camp, it is his mother who successfully drives it off by shouting and throwing rocks. Although he admires her straightforward way of dealing with crisis, James realizes he is more indirect and eccentric when coping with stressful situations. James identifies this style and his morbid lies as allied with his father’s neurotic temperament. Although his mother is active in the church and the community, James’s irritable father will not take up causes or join groups, remaining home as if afraid of the outside world. However, even though he realizes his mother is a better family manager and the more loving parent, James feels he has much in common with his father. Returning to the Yosemite incident, he recalls that the rest of the children become angry with his father because he made them leave the camp and then had joked in a silly way about the bear on the way home. James, on the other hand, feels he was the only one to truly understand how frozen and frightened his father was at the campsite. James especially identifies with his father’s use of word play as a way to cope with the fear and anxiety to which he feels both he and his father are especially prone.

Having faced these memories, James apologizes to his mother for writing lies to his friend. Soon afterward, at dinner, Dr. Murphy describes another patient of his as essentially dishonest, self-absorbed, and unlikable. These comments lead James to realize he does not want to be like Dr. Murphy’s other patient. Later James enjoys listening to his...

(The entire section is 652 words.)