The stories in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs have a consistently
dark tone to them that will discourage the average reader from finishing the
book. While none of them could be called sick or twisted, they do have a strange
feeling about them. Although they are very well written short stories, each
one is disconcerting on a different level.
Tobias Wolff’s reputation for excellent writing is well deserved, but
his type of short stories aren’t going to be read by very many people.
This collection is good example of this. These twelve stories are all very well
written, but none of them really have that upbeat, feel good ending that popular
mass fiction requires.
His characters all have a note of sadness or repulsion. Some elicit p
the reader and maybe even a sigh of relief that they are not your neighbors.
None of them evoke any real empathy despite the fact they seem very real. None
of the stories reach out to the reader and ask them to think about the point
of the story after he or she has put the book down.
And that’s the whole point of literary fiction. To make the reader think
and cause him or her to wonder about the things the story talked about. In popular
market fiction it’s okay for the reader to simply enjoy the book and then
put it away without further thought when the last page has been turned. In Wolff’s
chosen genre a book has to be much better than this one in order to be called
If you are a fan of Wolff or literary fiction in general then try Back in
the World or This Boy’s Life. Both are much better examples
of why Wolff has the reputation that he does. I would definitely avoid recommending
this book to a friend.