Home > 1970, 1980, 20th Century, American Literature, Short Stories, TBR20, Wolff Tobias > In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

  1. May 22, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Is this the first thing you’ve read by Wolff?


    • May 22, 2016 at 5:59 pm

      Yes, it is. Have you ever read anything by him?


      • May 22, 2016 at 6:14 pm

        No he’s one of those writers that I’ve been aware of but I’ve never really had any interest in–I can’t really say why


  2. Tredynas Days
    May 22, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I know Bullet in the Brain, another Wolff story, which is excellent, but the novels I only know from the film versions (uneven). Lovely review, thanks.


    • May 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      I wonder how the novels are. He’s obviously a gifted short story writer but sometimes it’s not so easy to be also a novelist.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 22, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    Great review as always Emma.

    These stories sound so good. The issue of how perception and misperception affects this world is so interesting to me. We see this reflected in literature but it is very apparent in the real world.


    • May 22, 2016 at 8:48 pm

      I have it in French, so I couldn’t include quotes to show how good his writing is.
      Although these stories happen to fictional characters, you can’t help reflecting a bit about yourself when you read them.


  4. May 23, 2016 at 1:26 am

    There are no film versions of the novels! There is a film of Woolf’s first memoir. Both volumes of memoir are outstanding.

    The one surviving novel, “Old School,” is Wolff’s weakest book, although it has some wonderful stuff in it, especially a chapter featuring Ayn Rand. I say “surviving” because there is an old novel that Wolff has repudiated.

    The short stories are superb. The next volume, “Back in the World,” is as good as the one you read, with the same “piercing” quality you describe.


    • May 23, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      Thanks for the info, Tom.
      I’ll keep the Back in the World suggestion in mind as I really liked this volume of short stories.

      How famous is he in the US?


  5. May 23, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Within the tiny world of contemporary U.S. short story writing, Wolff is a giant. So, overall, not remotely famous.


  6. May 24, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    Not a writer I knew at all (rather supporting Tom’s comment). The stories do sound very good, though I’m not sure I’m currently in the market for acutely well written and observed short stories odd as that may sound.


    • May 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      We’d better stay away from good books when we know we’re not in the right book: it would be a shame to waste good literature because of a bad timing.
      I think you’d enjoy these stories, when the time is right.


  7. May 25, 2016 at 11:56 am

    I’ve read everything by him, bar the supressed early novel Tom mentions. I would say there’s nothing of his *not* worth reading. He’s so assured, writes so smoothly, in a way that never draws attention to itself. I liked Old School more than Tom, but I agree there are a couple of “vignettes” that stand out more than the book overall – possibly betraying his true calling as a short story writer.

    Incidentally, his brother Geoffrey Wolff is an extremely accomplished writer in his own right – his books, about the bizarre bohemian Harry Crosby (Black Sun), and about the Wolff boys’ charming but deadbeat father (The Duke of Deception), are also fantastic.


    • May 25, 2016 at 12:48 pm

      Good to know about his all work.

      I didn’t know about his brother. I’ll look him up.


  8. May 25, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Yes, The Duke of Deception, a terrific book! What a family!


    • May 26, 2016 at 7:04 am

      I looked it up, it sounds terrific indeed.


  9. May 25, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    I only know of this author by way of the film of his memoir, This Boy’s Life, which is worth watching if you’re into movies. The stories do sound very good though – possibly something for the future once I’ve cleared a few of the collections currently occupying the shelves at home. 🙂


    • May 26, 2016 at 7:05 am

      I wish I had more time to watch movies.
      I think you’d like these stories. I’d love to read your thoughts about them.


  10. May 25, 2016 at 10:52 pm

    My novel -The Living Miracle A Love Story was published April 2nd, and has already received raving reviews. However, I am looking for more readers to review my novel. The Living Miracle begins in the year 3044. It is a Godless world. Instead of sending the apocalypse God send the people a synthetic girl. This is her story. The Living Miracle is a love story with a Christian/sci-fi twist.

    Thank you for considering my novel for review.


    • May 26, 2016 at 7:03 am


      I’m sorry but I don’t have time to read review copies.
      I wish your book a lot of success.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. May 28, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    This sounds like a great find – I’m not usually a big fan of short stories but your comments about the characterisation and plot seem to indicate that these are ‘complete’ stories in their own right.


    • May 31, 2016 at 8:09 pm

      I wasn’t a great fan of short stories either. I rediscovered the pleasure of reading these collections a few years ago.

      This one is really great. There’s a pattern in the stories but each is unique and the settings and contexts are all different. It’s incredible how much he manages to pack in a few pages. It’s hard to achieve.


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