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...
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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 goes by unheeding outside the fence. At this point, the grim humor verges on the drama of the absurd, in shades of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961).
In the collection’s opening story, “Termination Dust,” Boyle demonstrates the dangers of solipsistic vision by drawing readers into the point of view. The first-person point of view used is that of Ned, a six-foot, five-inch, 242-pound man from the Alaskan bush who drives hundreds of miles into Anchorage to bid in an auction selling off dates with 107 women up from Los Angeles. Jordy, an attractive English teacher, strikes Ned’s eye, and in a conversation with her he gets the idea that she is equally attracted to him. Unfortunately, Ned’s rival from back home in Boynton, “the bad element” Bud Withers, also romances Jordy, outbids Ned for her in the auction, and spirits her off to his cabin twelve miles outside Boynton. Hot on the trail, Ned speeds to the rescue, first to Fairbanks, then 180 miles over a dirt road to Boynton, and finally, during a raging snowstorm, the 12 miles downriver in a canoe to the cabin. Ned smashes down the door, catches Bud and Jordy naked in bed (with candlelight and violin music playing), and, convinced it is rape, kills Bud’s dog and Bud: “Jordy was screaming now, actually screaming, and you would have thought that I was the bad guy. . . .” With all the snow, Big Ned and Jordy are left socked in for the winter together.
Again, the situation in “Termination Dust” is somewhat reversed in “The Black and White Sisters,” where a contract gardener, Larry, has to conform to the eccentric vision of two sisters: Moira, who always makes up and dresses in white, and Caitlin, who always makes up and dresses in black. Being extremely rich, the two sisters can afford to impose their fashion statement on the world around them. Their house is already all done up in black and white, so the two sisters next start on landscape design. They hire Larry and a tree crew to rip out everything in their huge, beautiful garden and pave it over. The crew has to be all white (dressed in black jeans and white T-shirts) or all black (dressed in white jeans and black T-shirts), so Larry brings in an all-black crew from Los Angeles. Larry seems to be Caucasian, since he dresses in black jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black cap from which the sisters made him remove a “silver Raiders logo.” When he starts an affair with Caitlin, Moira tells Larry in no uncertain terms to stop all “outdoor work” (too much tanning) and dye his hair (either white or black, to be sure). The death motif seems inescapable.
Generally, Boyle seems to be sympathetic to the plight of the single white males in his work, but he does depict them, basically, as klutzes. They are victims of alcohol, and of their sex urges and stupidity. Why Larry would become intimately involved with the two sisters is beyond anyone’s guess, but his case is no worse than that of Baldasare Forestiere, an Italian immigrant to Fresno in 1905. In “The Underground Gardens,” Baldasare buys seventy acres of hardpan (sight unseen) on which he expects to grow vineyards, and upon arrival he immediately falls in love with the ugliest girl in town. Like some male bird building a nest, he spends years digging an underground mansion in the hardpan for her, which she then rejects along with him. The grave motif is as strong here as the suicide motif in “Mexico,” where an American tourist, Lester, drinks his way into an alcoholic stupor, gets beaten up and robbed on the beach at night, and, fortified again by alcohol, goes back the next night to beat up the robbers.
The women in the stories are somewhat more resourceful than the men. In “Captured by the Indians,” a young, pregnant woman rescues her boyfriend, a callous Ph.D. student of literary theory, by wrestling a sharp shovel away from a perpetrator about to impale it in his back. In “Friendly Skies,” another woman overwhelms a big, obnoxious man who goes berserk on an intercontinental flight by taking a fork to his face. Perhaps the most charming story in the whole collection is “My Widow,” which utilizes another interesting point of view, that of the long-dead husband. His ninety-year-old widow lives alone in their dirty, cluttered old house with a leaking roof and thirty or forty cats. She loses her purse on a shopping trip but does not worry: Someone will find it and call. The man who calls and returns the purse (cash missing) to her home goes by several aliases. Once inside, he slaps her and tries to rob her further, but she whips an old can of Mace out of the purse and sprays him in the face, immobilizing him until a neighbor and the police come. The headline reads “FEISTY OCTOGENARIAN THWARTS BURGLARY.”
However, not even the women entirely escape Boyle’s satirical exploration of contemporary American society. They are creatures who love to shop and to watch soap operas. Like the men, they have identities that have been honed by consumer imperatives and the media. True, they can speak up and defend themselves, and overall they seem smarter than the men in the stories. Yet, really, how much smarter could they be, considering the kinds of men they take up with?
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal 126 (August, 2001): 168.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 2, 2001): 5.