The Liar by Tobias Wolff, 1981
by Tobias Wolff, 1981
A key to understanding Tobias Wolff's "The Liar" may be found in his response to a question he was asked by a staff member of Contemporary Authors, which published an interview with him in 1986. The interviewer, speaking personally, admitted that "The Liar" was a favorite story and then asked the author how it came to be written. Wolff replied that he was a liar himself as a child and had actually remained a liar, not merely in regard to writing and telling stories. In telling a story, Wolff said that he would never want to be forced to stick to "a literal version of the facts" and did not know whether he was actually capable of doing so. There was another impulse—his "interest in families" and in how the survivors got along when a family member died. Moreover, he admitted that in some ways all of his stories were autobiographical.
Wolff came from a broken home and lost touch with his father, while at the same time he contended with a physically abusive stepfather. He led a wayward life of brute survival, often getting by with his fists, his wits, and his own rules. It is hardly surprising, then, that he developed an outlook on what life had to offer and on its possibilities that many other writers would not be likely to acquire. (One exception was his half brother Geoffrey, like himself a successful author.) His natural father, he found out later, had been living under false names and false pretenses, meeting the ongoing challenges of his own life by lying, conning, and exploiting his diverse capabilities to the fullest. Wolff presented his personal and family history in two autobiographical books—This Boy's Life (1989) and In Pharaoh's Army (1994). In light of this, "The Liar" takes on special significance.
In point of fact, lying, including closely related behavior such as double-dealing and playing confidence games, is a recurrent pattern of behavior of one or more characters in a number of Wolff's short stories. It is found, for example, in "Hunters in the Snow," "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," "Say Yes," "The Other Miller," and "Smorgasbord." This theme seems to reflect the author's experience in childhood and youth of living on the edge in a threatening environment in which verbal deceit and cheating were common means of getting by.
In a 1985 New York Times review of Wolff's short story collection Back in the World, Michiko Kakutani remarked that his characters get by on a daily basis "by telling assorted stories and lies." For these characters and for the author himself, "lying—in this case, fiction-making" becomes a method for "imposing a narrative order on their lives" and a way to connect "with others and with their receding dreams." In fact, however, the instances of lying in Wolff's stories, ignoring his fiction as a form of lying, commonly have to do with defense mechanisms and other self-serving processes. That is, these instances of lying have far more specific aims than the ones suggested by Kakutani.
James, the protagonist of "The Liar," seems to have fairly understandable motives for most of his lying. The 16-year-old James makes up fanciful but morbid stories about the health of his widowed mother. In a letter to a friend, which the mother finds and reads, and in conversations with other people, even strangers, James mentions her medical problems and slim chances for survival. All of this is in marked contrast to her actual physical state, for she is described as being as strong as a horse. The letter distresses her to the point that she seeks help from an old family friend, the physician Dr. Murphy, who does amateur psychological counseling on the spot even though he is not trained in psychoanalysis. He is of little help, however, even when he takes James to task for leaving the letter lying around and when he reminds him how hard things are for his widowed mother. James says that he did not intend for his mother to find the letter, and Dr. Murphy advises him not to underestimate her.
In the course of the story James recalls summer camping trips to Yosemite with the family, including one particular experience with an aggressive bear. His mother had kept the bear away from the family by hitting it with a huge stone, while his father stayed out of the action. At one point James realizes that he and his father had in common the same fear. He also recognizes that his mother did not seem to miss his father a great deal after he died. In a number of ways his parents had been decidedly out of tune with each other, particularly in regard to social attitudes. For example, she had wanted him to participate in group activities or movements, but he had not been inclined to.
The last instance of James's lying occurs on a bus while he is going to Los Angeles to stay, at his mother's suggestion, with his brother Michael. In response to a talkative woman's inquiry about his background, he spontaneously replies that his earliest years from birth onward were spent in Tibet, that his missionary parents were killed there during the communist takeover, and that he has worked with Tibetan refugees. Then, in answer to a further request, he recites a nursery rhyme in bogus Tibetan and winds up by singing a bogus Tibetan chant.
With the exception of the Tibetan charade, one does not have to search far for the explanation of James's lying. He and his mother are painfully at odds, and his reaction to her takes the form of escapist fantasies that serve as wish fulfillment. It does not appear that he consciously or unconsciously wishes upon her the dread medical conditions he attributes to her. For all her avowal of her love for him, she has snooped and thus showed her distrust. This distrust, James states, has made him forgetful. He admits that things between them have never been easy. When he was young, she underestimated him, suspecting him of delicacy because he did not like rough games, and she always seemed to hold it against him when he got hurt playing the games he tried to avoid. She does not understand and dislikes the punning games he is so good at, and she tries to get him to believe that he has no ability to sing.
When he sings what is supposedly a Tibetan chant, he may be trying to prove his vocal ability in the face of his mother's disparagement. Or he may be continuing his deep-rooted practice of lying, induced, it would appear, by his reaction to his mother. This is an example of what the psychologist Gordon Allport called "functional autonomy of motives," the principle that motives sometimes become independent of the situation that brought them about, at which point they take on a life of their own.
—Samuel I. Bellman