Thursday, June 07, 2018

"The Liar" (1981)

Story by Tobias Wolff not available online.

Tobias Wolff is somehow reliably one of the most instantly engaging writers I know, whether he is writing fiction or nonfiction. He seems to be always spinning stories that get their hooks in me. This gem, the last story in the collection edited by Raymond Carver (and the last in this series), is a great example. It features three characters: a woman and her son and their family doctor. It's told first-person by the son, James, who is 16. Mother is a widow—her husband, James's father, died of cancer some years earlier. He died at home when James was there and Mother was out. Since then, a tendency in James to exaggerate has grown into a morbid variety of pathological lying. He intimates to people that family members, or he himself, have contracted deadly diseases. He lies the way any kid starved for attention will do, especially after it has worked a few times. He's obviously in the grip of a compulsion and to address it his mother sends him to their family doctor, Dr. Murphy, who "was our family physician and had no training in psychoanalysis, but he took an interest in 'things of the mind,' as he put it." The story has a kind of dense but rolling way of moving along. James never attempts to justify or explain his lying, he just reports it. He is as puzzled as anyone about it, but also seems to enjoy his antics on the level of a joke. He is amused, if anything, that people believe what he tells them. He writes one friend (in an unmailed letter that Mother finds while snooping in his drawers) that Mother "had been coughing up blood and the doctors weren't sure what was wrong with her, but that we were hoping for the best." At the same time, he knows he shouldn't do this and he does want to stop, or at least is conflicted. Wolff has famously admitted he was a pathological liar himself as a youth and turned those energies to writing fiction. Fair enough. I had my own period of lying and Wolff seems to have a lot of the details right. There's also a remarkable family memory of a trip to Yosemite, with strange vivid details. And there's a wonderful ending, with James on a Greyhound bus pretending to speak Chinese to his seatmate and those around him. Any place is good to start with Wolff. Start here.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

No comments:

Post a Comment