Greasy Lake and Other Stories
Like film director Robert Altman, T. Coraghessan Boyle appears to be building, piece by piece, a humorous but thought-provoking portrait of America. He balances the past and the present, the good and the bad, the motives and causes of failures, all the while entertaining the reader with almost dangerous laughter and ludicrous situations—until the reader is suddenly jolted by the perception: “That’s me.”
The choice of the title story and its epigraph, “It’s about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88” (from a Bruce Springsteen song), indicate the real thematic thrust of the collection: the “dark side” of America in the latter half of the twentieth century. The brighter, light side is present primarily by omission and in the ability of Boyle to make the reader laugh at the ironies of characters and situations. The American Dream, its optimism for human growth and potential, is exposed as a failure. The only two previously unpublished stories of the collection—“Not a Leg to Stand On” and “All Shook Up”—reinforce this emphasis. The first is about the plight of the elderly; the second, about the present state of marriage. Only two of the stories, really genre parodies, are not set in the United States. “Rupert Beersley and the Beggar Master of Sivani-Hoota,” an Arthur Conan Doyle parody suggesting the implications of drug use, is set in India. “The Overcoat II,” parodying Nikolay Gogol’s famous story, studies the effects of political disillusionment on a Russian. The problems in each could easily be transferred to contemporary America. In these stories, we discover that our own denial of the natural animal side of human nature is the basis of many of our failures. We have ignored to our own peril the struggle for survival in which everyone takes part, willingly or not. We also try to ignore basic laws of nature: Corruption and decay are inevitable, as Boyle shows in his multitudinous characters and situations. From teenagers to the poor and aged, from fishermen to presidents, primal animal urges manifest themselves in often-unexpected ways. Just as significantly, the individual’s desires for fulfillment and his search for significance fail or are taken away from him when he must choose to survive.
In Boyle’s stories, as in the work of most ironists, such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, positive values must be inferred by their absence. The grails have long disappeared for his adventurous knights; their causes are often suspect even to themselves; the objects of their searches corrupted and isolated from both the natural and ideal world. “Greasy Lake” itself epitomizes such stories: Its contemporary knights errant face the perils of man and nature, yet their keys are symbolically lost. The “I” narrators must be considered carefully as Americans but never confused with the author, even though they may tell their tales with his brilliant phrasing and metaphors. Although few come to fully recognized epiphanies, most come to some recognition of loss, a disguised longing for harmony between themselves and nature. Nevertheless, their recognitions are usually of the romantic inclination and fail to face Darwinism and entropy.
On the other hand, Boyle’s emphasis on the animal side of human nature, particularly in man’s sexual urges and varied degrees of violence in his struggle for survival, never obliterates the all-too-human aspirations for something higher and better. There is a childless couple, desperately searching for a way to have children; an older couple passionately in love but unable to be together; a man who becomes a survivalist in search of peace and security for his family; an aging baseball player still hoping for his last great game; an environmentalist who wants to protect the whales; a politician who wants to better America and leave his mark on history; a lawyer who has achieved his dream of a job, home, and family, only to have it threatened by a childhood friend; an idealistic bureaucrat who longs for the better life and some dignity; and rebellious teenagers who pursue adventure in all the wrong, but traditionally American ways. That things seldom turn out as planned, most pointedly seen in “A Bird in Hand,” is also a Boyle statement on the human condition.
Indeed, one of Boyle’s gifts is his ability to capture quickly, in a memorable sentence or two, the minor characters of a story, an ability...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)