Looking like a punk rocker but hailing from the sleepy Hudson River town of Peekskill, New York, T. Coraghessan Boyle writes fiction that oddly but brilliantly combines wild imagination and old-fashioned storytelling. After (barely) graduating from Potsdam State University, Boyle followed his literary heroes John Gardner and Robert Coover to the Iowa Writers Workshop. There, under the direction of John Irving, he wrote many of the stories collected in his first book, Descent of Man(1979), while, like Gardner, completing a Ph.D. in English literature.
Like Boyle’s three previous collections of short fiction and five novels,The Road to Wellville (1993) in particular, Without a Hero combines narrative drive with deadpan comic zaniness. What results is an oxymoronic art of excess and exaggeration in the cause of moderation. It is a “moral fiction,” not because it conforms to Gardner’s rather restrictive, even reactionary meaning but because it is deeply and even sympathetically, if satirically and often hilariously, concerned with the ongoing circus of contemporary American life, its characteristic quirks and foibles, obsessions and inanities. In this sense Boyle picks up where two older writers have left off: Donald Barthelme, an early and still important influence, and John Cheever, whom Boyle thought passé when he met him at Iowa but whose work he has since come to admire. Together, Boyle’s, Barthelme’s, and Cheever’s stories and novels constitute an extraordinary, half-century-long record of “the way we live now” in America.
This is especially evident in the first of the collection’s fifteen stories (all, incidentally, first published in Antaeus, GQ, Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Wigwag). “Big Game” is a flawless reworking of Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” It follows the same structure, basic plot, cast of characters, and shifting point of view, but substitutes for Hemingway’s diminished, minimalist modernist prose Boyle’s own sense of a differently diminished postmodern age. In effect, Boyle does to Hemingway what Karl Marx did to G. W. F. Hegel. He rewrites existential tragedy as parodic farce, changing the scene from Africa to Bernard Puff’s well-insured and well-enclosed 2,500-acre African Game Ranch located just outside Bakersfield, California. There, high rollers such as real estate super-broker Mike Bender and his stunning wife Nicole, accompanied by their spoiled, sulky twelve-year-old daughter, Jasmine Honeysuckle Rose, play at big game hunting. Puff’s quinine water, British accent, and water hole (a converted Olympic-size swimming pool) are all part of the game, along with the over-the-hill menagerie of former circus animals that Puff has assembled less for sport than for profit (his) and interior decoration (his clients’), each with its own price tag, to be added to an already formidable per diem charge. “The gazelles are very nice and they’ll be perfect for the office,” Nicole says, “but I wanted something, well, biggerfor the front hall and at least three of the zebra—two for the den, I thought, and we’re going to need one for the ski lodge . . . you know, to hide that ugly paneling behind the bar?”
The considerable and deliberate distance between the existential predicament in which Hemingway’s characters find themselves and the pratfalls taken by Boyle’s comic cast evidences itself throughout the story. There is, for example, Puff’s Oedipal situation and anxiety of influence; his Hemingwayesque “Papa” was “one of the last of the great white hunters of East Africa—friend and compatriot of Percival and Ionides, host to some of the biggest names of American cinema and European aristocracy.” Then there is Bender’s dream of bagging a lion, a dream that derives from a childhood trip to the Bronx Zoo. Worse, which is to say funnier still, there is his and Puff’s haggling over the price of an ancient, single-tusked Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey castoff with which Mike, who knows the elephant only as Shamba, not Bessie Bee, hopes to salve his wounded ego. (“Her zebra had been perfect, but he’d fouled up two of the three he’d shot: But Mike, she’d said, we can’t hang these— they’ll look like colanders. And then the business with the lion.” “Tacky, tacky, tacky,” judges the daughter at story’s end, not yet aware that Bessie Bee has made her an orphan.
Elsewhere Boyle takes on other forms of American nuttiness. In “Filthy with Things,” the target is the same therapeutic society assailed by Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1978). For Lasch’s analysis Boyle substitutes the anal retentiveness of consumer culture—which, however, comes off better than the alternative, if it is an alternative (the acquisition of material goods giving way to the acquisition of professional services). After sixteen years of marriage, which his wife, Marsha, has turned into one long buying spree, Julian Laxner decides he has had enough and calls in help in the form of Susan Certaine, Professional Organizer, and her associate Dr. Doris Hauskopf, “a specialist in aggregation disorder.” The two arrive with a fleet of trailer trucks, a female crew, bar codes, a 327-page contract, and a $1,000-per-day price tag. Marsha is temporarily relocated to the Susan Certaine Residential Treatment Center in...
(The entire section is 2275 words.)