Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tobias Wolff
Some of the stories in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs

1. Next Door
The narrator and his wife, unnamed, live next door to a man who abuses his wife and dog, and who is hostile to the narrator and his wife. The neighbor urinates on the narrator's flowers while the narrator watches. The narrator characterizes the neighbor as "hairy" and likens him to an Airedale. The narrator does not take action against the violence; he and his wife listen to it in impotent despair. The narrator cultivates plants and the garden; his wife has been ill and rebuffs her husband's sexual advances. This odd and lonely life seems to have been exacerbated by a particularly violent encounter the pair witness from the window: the man beats the dog into submission and then he and his wife have passionate sex, all visible through the window. The narrator's wife here turns against the neighbor woman, judging her to be complicit in the abuse.

The final sentence, where the narrator describes a movie he would write about explorers: "They stand and raise their arms, like white trees in a land where no one has ever been."

2. Hunters in the Snow
Tub, Kenny, and Frank go deer hunting. Kenny bullies Tub (who is overweight and having a hard time keeping up with the others) and Frank has a secret: he loves a young babysitter. Tub is so unhappy; Frank has a dark underside. A dog is shot; one of the friends is also shot and left in the back of a pickup truck on a very cold winter night as he lays dying. Tub comes to term with his eating, and friendships and loyalty are tested.

3. An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke
A professor who considers himself exemplary has a rival at school who taunts him with his handlebar mustache. The professors have to attend a conference together and all the spite and malice that you've heard about in academia presents itself in the acts of the conference attendees. Professor Brooke has the occasion to remember some terribly malicious things he did as a youth; at the conference he is presented with temptation and is weak. He thinks his wife will never find out, but she knows the scents of his laundry and knows something has marred their marriage when she smells perfume.

4. Smokers
I think this story must have been taken from Wolff's novel Old School; it felt familiar and the subject is certainly the same. But I haven't read OS since 2005, so memory is slippery. In this story, a "charity" student at a prestigious boarding school is so insecure and is such a social climber that he subtly orchestrates the dismissal of a boy who is in a similar circumstance but seems to be somehow getting in the way of the narrator. No animals were injured in this story.

5. Face to Face
Virginia was dumped by her husband and subsequently fixed up with Robert. Robert is shy at first, polite. Virginia is ambiguous. After a period of benign dating, they go out to eat. At dinner he's a big shot, paying for a violin serenade and smoking a big cigar. Robert wants to know stories about Virginia's ex-husband. She is hesitant at first but because it warms Robert up, she complies. When Virginia asks about Robert's ex-wife, he gets flustered and wants to leave. They go on a weekend trip to Vancouver. Robert is embarrassed about sexual matters. He drinks a lot at dinner, and more afterward at the bar. He makes it clear that he will drink a lot. They can't communicate. Their first sexual experience was cold and it hurt. At the movie in the afternoon, Robert tries stroking the inside of her thigh. She asks him to stop. Virginia insists on knowing more about Robert's ex-wife. He calls her a whore and Virginia asks if he means that literally. It turns out that, no, she fell in love with someone else and they are now married with a child. "But you called her a whore," Virginia says. And then we're told that "Robert's nostrils flared and his brows crept together. He panted softly. 'You women,' he said." There is another scene of pushing and pulling, and by the end, they have both permanently retreated into themselves.

6. Passengers
You expected that this story of a man in a borrowed car (borrowed from his boss AND roommate AND albatross) who picks up a hitchhiker and her dog to have a lot more malice. But here, none of the characters mean to do harm. They are just not able to relate to each other in normal ways. There's a scary moment when the dog (as the narrator, Glen, thought he might) caused the car to spin out of control on a foggy highway, but they all came out unscathed. You realize that Glen must figure out a way to get out of his roommate's life, and you have hope that he will.

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