T. C. Boyle Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle is remarkable, in part, for the fact that it represents the work of an author who is only twenty-five years into his writing career. The 691-page volume contains all the tales from Boyle’s four short story collections—Descent of Man (1979), Greasy Lake (1985), If the River Was Whiskey(1989), and Without a Hero (1994)—plus four stories previously unpublished in book form and three previously unpublished anywhere, an impressive sixty-eight in all. The book is divided into three sections: “Love,” “Death,” and “Everything in Between.”
T. C. Boyle Stories is also remarkable for the sheer diversity of its content. Boyle has, for several years, been at the forefront of a rebellion against the minimalist “dirty realism” of such writers as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Philips, Tobias Wolff, and Bobbie Ann Mason that long dominated American fiction. Even the stories that are set in the suburban households and neighborhoods that have become so familiar to readers of contemporary American fiction manage to reach beyond the mundane into an off-kilter narrative realm that has been referred to by critics as “fantasy realism”—a combination of traditional narrative form (complete with realistic settings and believable characters) and relentlessly absurd plots that seem to rush in an endless stream from Boyle’s vivid imagination. Such absurdity is, however, only a single facet of one of Boyle’s most potent tools as a writer: humor. A large number of his stories seethe with varying doses of parody, slapstick, satire, wit, and irony.
The objects of Boyle’s humorous barbs are often the obsessions of people terrorized by a millennial fear of themselves and everything and everyone around them. The first story in the collection, “Modern Love,” features a narrator who dates a woman who insists on wearing a full-body condom during sex, which prevents the exchange not only of body fluids but also of the feelings of trust that are often the basis for love. (Throughout the story, the woman follows each profession of love for the narrator with the qualifying phrase “I think.”) “Filthy with Things,” the final story, tells a playful yet ultimately disturbing tale about a couple suffocating in a world of suburban materialism that has advanced so far beyond their control that they must hire someone to kick them out of their house and take possession of their belongings. As the narrator watches strangers catalogue everything he owns, he feels “as if he doesn’t exist, as if he’s already become an irrelevance in the face of the terrible weight of his possessions,” or, more broadly, of a late twentieth century American culture in which materiality often defines the person.
A thorough reading of these stories reveals some of the author’s own obsessions, one of which is his intense interest in literature itself. Literary references, both overt and covert, abound in Boyle’s books, and many of the stories parody the lives and works of well-known authors. “I Dated Jane Austen” recounts the narrator’s jaunt to a movie theater and a dance club in an Alfa Romeo with the nineteenth century author of Mansfield Park (1814). In “Ma Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua),” Robert Jordan III, the grandson of the hero of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), proves to be incompetent in matters military when he accompanies Nicaraguan guerrillas on a mission to blow up a Contra airfield. Jordan, who has acquired his political views from punk rock lyrics (one flashback reveals a tender moment between Jordan and his grandmother—Maria from Hemingway’s novel—as they sit together in the living room listening to seminal punk band the Clash’s 1980 album Sandinista!), is ensconced in a rebellion based more on showing up his mother and his schoolmates who had administered “all the head slaps and gibes about his hair, his gloves, and his boots” than on any real ideological conviction. His abandonment, based, like his grandfather’s, on an injury administered by a horse, reveals the cowardice of fleeing his adolescent problems rather than staying home to conquer them. “The Overcoat II” is a Soviet-era retelling of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 story “The Overcoat,” but in a much more cynical vein. Primarily a spoof of the Soviet lifestyle, “The Overcoat” illustrates how Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is exploited by the very system to which he had dedicated his entire life at the expense of cultivating any meaningful relationships with those around him. At the end of Gogol’s story, the ghost...
(The entire section is 1921 words.)