If the River Was Whiskey

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

If the River Was Whiskey, the third collection of short stories by T. Coraghessan Boyle, chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989, demonstrates his comic vision of paranoia, violence, and sexual relations in contemporary America. As his previous collections, Descent of Man (1979) and Greasy Lake and Other Stories (1985), and his novels, Water Music (1981), Budding Prospects (1984), and World’s End (1987), have shown, Boyle is a distinctive stylist and an entertaining, subtle moralist. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Boyle eschews the mundane world of minimalist realities for an expansive, absurd universe in which anything can happen. Rather than limit himself to one milieu, he bounces all over the place, setting his stories throughout the globe and presenting an array of characters of different ages and backgrounds. Boyle is as likely to write about a lonely widow as about a rebellious punk rocker.

If the River Was Whiskey offers a security system saleswoman in “Peace of Mind”; an importer of Italian shoes to Latin America in “Zapatos”; sexual jealousies at a southern Sierras ski resort in “The Hat”; a grossly fat sociopath obsessed with bees in “King Bee”; a Hollywood public relations man who attempts to reshape the image of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in “Hard Sell”; and a statue of the Virgin Mary in Ireland that re-creates, for all the world to see, the transgressions and indulgences of an American visitor in “The Miracle at Ballinspittle,” making him the “Saint of the Common Sinner.”

As in his previous collections, Boyle invokes well-known literary works and films in his stories. “The Little Chill,” about a reunion of high school friends, pokes fun at the self-absorption of characters such as those in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chili (1983). “The Devil and Irv Cherniske” brings the Faust legend to John Cheever country. “The Human Fly” is a 1980’s retelling of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” featuring an emaciated daredevil who will go to any extremes in his quest for fame. The best of these stories, “Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua),” presents the grandson of the hero of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) as a demolition expert out to blow up the supplies (Twinkies and Lipton Cup of Soup) sent to the Contras. The humor comes less from a parody of the too-easy-to-mock Hemingway style than from the implied contrast between the protagonist and his grandfather. No idealist, this Robert Jordan is representative of his spoiled generation: “You take the first watch And the second and third too. Come to think of it, why don’t you just wake me at noon.” Everyone he meets compliments him on his hairstyle.

Four stories in particular embody Boyle’s satire, outrage, and compassion at their most effective. Deconstruction and its critical cousins are referred to several times in If the River Was Whiskey, and one story, the delightful “Sorry Fugu,” employs the less ethereal world of restaurant reviewing to poke fun at critics in general and the insecure artists who rely on their praise. Albert D’Angelo, chef/owner of D’Angelo’s, lives in fear of the day Willa Frank and her companion, known only as “The Palate,” arrive to scrutinize his cuisine. Yet Albert also longs to meet the challenge of this harshest of critics who never likes anything, even at Udolpho’s, which Albert has long considered the greatest restaurant. On Willa’s first visit, she and her hulking boyfriend, Jock McNamee, are recognized by an employee. Albert discovers that Willa follows the dictates of the crude Jock, who barely touches his carefully prepared dishes. Realizing that the fate of his restaurant lies in wooing Willa’s...

(The entire section is 1577 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Cutting from one scene to another with no more transition than a series of asterisks between scenes, the narrative might be difficult to follow if it were not for the shift in point of view from father to son. The shifting point of view guides the reader through a vague chronology and minimally sketched settings; more important, it allows the reader to feel the isolation and increasing alienation of young Tilden while simultaneously registering the inner torture of the failing and ailing father.

Much of the story revolves around water imagery. The song from which the story takes its title figures prominently in the narrative: “If the river was whiskey/ And I was a divin’ duck/ I’d swim to the bottom/ Drink myself back up.” It is this song that the father plays repeatedly after losing his job, that Tiller tells his dad he likes a lot, that the father explains to his son by saying, “I guess he just liked whiskey, that’s all.” Caroline drinks Four Roses whiskey, but Dad’s “whiskey” is vodka. Dad has been in a river of vodka and has drunk his way down. He has lost his job, his wife is leaving him, and as a result he also is losing his son.

The story closes with the father’s drunken dream replaying the failed fishing trip, but with tragic consequences. Just as in the actual fishing trip, the father is a powerless figure, but in his dream he and Tilden are suddenly sucked under water. (Here the reader may recall that Tilden makes a habit of removing his lifejacket.) He watches his son being pulled farther and farther down and cannot save him. His son is dying, drowning in a river of whiskey of his father’s making.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Bloomsbury Review. IX, November/December, 1989, p.5.

Booklist. LXXXV, May 15, 1989, p.1606.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, March 1, 1989, p.312.

Library Journal. CXIV, March 15, 1989, p.84.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 21, 1989, p.3.

Mother Jones. XIV, July/August, 1989, p.52.

The New Republic. CC, June 12, 1989, p.40.

The New York Times. May 2, 1989, p. C18.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, May 14, 1989, p.1.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXV, February 24, 1989, p.223.

The Wall Street Journal. CCXIII, June 20, 1989, p. A16.