T. Coraghessan Boyle, one of the most entertaining interpreters of contemporary American culture, has a sense of humor that just will not quit. His satire The Road to Wellville (1993) revealed the roots of the modern American obsession with health and thinness in the sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, run by none other than John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes. The Tortilla Curtain (1995) contrasted the lives and experiences of yuppies and illegal immigrants in Southern California, and A Friend of the Earth (2001) fantasized about a postapocalyptic America from the point of view of a former ecoterrorist. Many of these themes resurface in After the Plague, and even when he is writing about serious matters, his plots sometimes take bizarre turns, his characters are often quirky, and his style features breezy colloquialisms and similes that give away his basically humorous approach. His approach is certainly postmodern, showing the constant play of irony and the influences of academia and the popular media, but in the age of television he also carries on the American tradition of Mark Twain and other earlier satirists and humorists. Boyle was obviously born into a rich time for such writers, and he enhanced his opportunity by moving to California.
Despite their quirkiness, Boyle’s characters run to types—the outback caveman, the beach bum, the pregnant teen, the drunken tourist, the electronic voyeur, the coping female, the senior not coping, and so forth. However, their stereotypical natures reflect the shallowness of their culture, a consumer culture formed by the media, which spew forth advertisements, minute news, formula entertainment, and processed identities. In the collection’s title story, for instance, a mutated strain of the Ebola virus wipes out the earth’s population except for a few isolated individuals. Yet this world catastrophe is only a temporary setback for the California survivors, who come down from the hills and resume their relaxed, sexy lifestyle, with the pick of video cassettes, supermarket canned goods, abandoned luxury cars, and empty seaside villas. They do notice that “life was different. More relaxed and expansive, more natural. The rat race was over, the freeways were clear all the way to Sacramento. . . .”
Such monumental self-centeredness is likewise depicted in other stories, some of which are reminiscent of reports in the evening news. In “She Wasn’t Soft,” the hard-drinking beach-bum boyfriend of Paula Turk, a trim female athlete in the triathlon, decides to get back on her good side (they have been quarreling) by sabotaging her constantly winning competition, the German machine Zinny Bauer. Dressed in disguise, he holds a drink of Gatorade spiked with barbiturate for Bauer near the finish line. Yet Paula shows up first, all alone in the lead. So, on a sudden urge, he gives her the drugged drink, apparently to assert his control in the relationship. In “The Love of My Life,” a coed in denial covers up her pregnancy (rather than have an abortion), has her boyfriend destroy the newborn baby, and then testifies against him for murder.
Still other examples of oblivious self-absorption abound. In “Going Down,” an aging man’s aging wife drives off shopping to the mall and gets lost in a blizzard. Instead of going in search of her, the man takes refuge in a fantasy novel about growing younger and, when a police officer appears late that night to report her accident, complains that “I’ve just got fifteen pages to go.” In “Rust,” the tables are turned: A senior citizen has a stroke in his back yard and lies there, paralyzed and roasting in the California sun, while inside his equally old wife watches soap operas all day and into the evening. When it finally dawns on her that he is missing, she ventures forth into the dark back yard, trips and falls over him, and breaks her hip. Then they both lie there, immobilized and dying, while the busy world...
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