One of the most penetrating and riveting of the 12 stories in Tobias Wolff’s 1981 collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, “Hunters in the Snow” was selected as the title story of the British edition that appeared in the following year. Wolff’s story features three men on a hunting trip, but the friendships among the three men evolve in a complex, ironic, and contradictory manner so that the concepts of hunters and hunted, men and animals, seem to exchange places. Removed from the apparently safe haven of their homes and jobs in Spokane, Washington, each of the men seeks some sort of self-validation through the masculine ritual of the hunt, and if their discoveries seem not to alarm them, they surely distress the reader. The relentlessly falling snow and the numbing cold suffuse this story of fl awed friendships gone irreversibly awry.
The story opens in the driving snow as Tub, who has been waiting over an hour for his friends Frank and Kenny, is forced to leap out of the path of the truck that jumps the sidewalk and nearly kills him. The truck is driven by Kenny, who looks at Tub and remarks, “He looks just like a beach ball with a hat on, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he, Frank?” This opening with its suggestion of aggression, insults, violence, and near-misses sets the mood for the rest of the story. Frank and Kenny share a close relationship from which they exclude Tub; they insult him and push him to his limit. Kenny is the most aggressive of the three, probing the weaknesses in Tub, who is overweight and is self-conscious about and denies his condition, and Frank, who feels defensive and guilty about and denies the immorality of his affair with a teenage babysitter. When they see deer tracks and realize they must ask permission to hunt it from the farmer who owns the land, Kenny, accompanied by Frank, accelerates the truck so that Tub barely makes it into the truck bed, where “he lay there, panting” in the freezing wind. In the words of the scholar and critic Dean Flower, Wolff is a master at presenting “insecure and immature adults. The effect is less [J. D.] Salinger than, say, Raymond Carver, with its special emphasis on passivity and sublimation” (278).
After gaining permission from the farmer, Kenny, kneeling on all fours, cannot resist ridiculing even the farmer’s incontinent old dog, who slinks away from him. Later, angry that for the first time in 15 years he has not shot a deer, Kenny points to a post; smiles; says, “I hate that post”; and shoots it. He looks at a tree; repeats, “I hate that tree”; and shoots it. When the farmer’s dog barks at him, he says, “I hate that dog” and shoots it between the eyes. As most critics and readers note, this is the turning point in the story. Tub protests that the dog has done nothing to deserve being killed; Kenny says, “I hate you”; and Tub shoots Kenny in the stomach. Frank and Tub discuss calling an ambulance and, with Kenny rather than Tub lying in the truck bed, they return to the farmhouse. After learning that the nearest hospital is 50 miles away and that the farmer had asked Kenny to shoot his old, sick dog because he could not do so himself, they return to the truck and Tub asserts himself: Grabbing Frank by the collar, he orders him to stop taunting him about his weight. Frank acquiesces and they drive off, ignoring the wounded Kenny in the back of the truck.
Because they are cold, they stop at a tavern to warm up, and they warm to each other, Frank confessing to Tub his obsession with the babysitter, apparently the daughter of a mutual friend, and Tub confessing to Frank his obsessive gluttony. As each man not only accepts but also sympathizes with the other’s need to lie to his wife and family about his secret compulsions, Frank orders Tub four plates of pancakes smothered in butter and syrup and tells him to eat them all. When they return to the truck, they find the freezing and semiconscious Kenny jackknifed over the tailgate, but neither seems concerned. They know that they have lost the directions to the hospital. And it no longer matters. As the story concludes, Kenny still thinks they are taking him to the hospital, but as the narrator remarks, “He was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.” In the words of the reviewer Bruce Allen, Tobias Wolff “is a really rather frighteningly accomplished writer” (486) as he dispassionately presents the way individuals cope with moments of crisis in their lives. They prove themselves no better than the animals they hunt. Actually, in retrospect, the animals, lacking the urges of cruelty and vengeance, are more admirable than these human males.
Allen, Bruce. “American Short Fiction Today.” New England Review 4, no. 3 (Spring 1982): 486–488.
Challener, Daniel D. Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff. New York: Garland, 1997.
Flower, Dean. “Fiction Chronicle.” Hudson Review 35, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 278–279.
Gates, David. “Our Stories, Our Selves.” Newsweek, 23 January 1989, p. 64.
Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.
Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff.” Contemporary Literature, 31 (Spring 1990): 1–16.
Wolff, Tobias. “Hunters in the Snow.” In In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. New York: HarperPerennial,