Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1921
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Man (1979), Greasy Lake (1985), If the River Was Whiskey(1989), and Without a Hero (1994)—plus four stories previously unpublished in book form and three previously unpublished anywhere, an impressive sixty-eight in all.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 of Akaky gets revenge on those who wronged him during his life; in Boyle’s version, the only person who benefits is the corrupt Soviet official who gains possession of the coat after Akaky dies.
Boyle also displays an ongoing interest in the influence that animals have on human behavior, and vice versa. The narrator of “Carnal Knowledge” gets dragged into a circle of animal rights militants when he falls for a woman whose dog urinated on him at the beach. After a plot to release thousands of turkeys a few weeks before Thanksgiving leads to a traffic accident on a poultry-infested freeway, the narrator returns to eating the Big Macs he had been subconsciously craving for days. In “Heart of a Champion,” Lassie performs a series of absurdly melodramatic rescues (such as administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Timmy) before falling for a “scrag of a coyote” that makes the collie’s “offended AKC morality” dissolve. In “Descent of Man,” Jane, the narrator’s wife, runs off with the chimpanzee genius—he has translated books by Noam Chomsky and Friedrich Nietzsche into Yerkish—with whom she is doing research at the nearby primate study center. The relationships between animals and humans in such stories are often used to explore deeper issues of self, of understanding one’s own nature in the midst of a world saturated by the white noise of information overload. The protagonists of these stories must face the struggle between breeding and desire, between what people (or dogs) are taught to think they want and what they really do want.
Throughout his writing career, Boyle has retained a dedication to keen observation rendered through bold, colorful language. His style contains a vibrant quality that seems to be missing from the larger portion of contemporary American fiction. Boyle has indicated in interviews that he believes that fiction can possess the same vitality as rock and roll music, and his inventive and entertaining work clearly strives to back up this contention. One strategy that aids the author in this endeavor is his penchant for mixing the sordid details of popular culture with heightened language and ideas in a way that creates conflict and tension without forsaking humor. The aforementioned “I Dated Jane Austen” demonstrates an extensive knowledge and understanding of Austen’s literary era (Boyle studied eighteenth and nineteenth century English literature on his way to a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa) as well as a carefully observed grasp of 1970’s night life. The ability to mix “high” and “low” culture in a short piece of fiction may be seen as adhering to the postmodern tendency to use pastiche in art. However, Boyle’s narratives, although playful enough to be considered experimental, are generally traditional in form, and he avoids the use of metafictive devices usually associated with postmodern authors such as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Italo Calvino. (It is interesting to note, however, that the narrator of “I Dated Jane Austen” is referred to at one point as “Mr. Boyle,” a revelation that serves momentarily to pull the reader out of the fictional world to contemplate the ramifications of the story were it proven to be nonfiction).
Although reading a complete collection of an author’s work often means plowing through the mediocre to get to the good (and this book is no exception), one benefit is the ability to see the development of the writer over time. In Boyle’s case, there is a clear tendency for early stories to be driven more by premise than character. In stories such as “Bloodfall,” a 1972 account of a group of materialistic college students trying to ignore the fact that they are trapped in a house as blood rains down from the sky for days, characterization is subordinate to the idea. In subsequent stories, Boyle began demonstrating a willingness to invest more time and effort into exploring the multiple dimensions of his characters, and by the 1980’s, a clear preference for dwelling on the more subtle intricacies of the human condition had emerged.
One of the earliest of these character-driven tales is also one of Boyle’s strongest. “Greasy Lake” appears, on the surface, to be a story of humility about three teenagers who get the tar kicked out of them because they imagine themselves to be “bad” when they really are not. Boyle, however, goes several steps deeper into the psyche of the narrator, who jumps into Greasy Lake to escape a fight that has been set off by his and his friends’ own stupidity. While in the water, he bumps against a corpse, which causes him to feel “the tug of fear” and “the darkness opening up inside [him] like a set of jaws.” At this point the bad-teenagers-in-trouble narrative turns into a morbid coming-of-age story in which the author equates maturity with the realization that one is, in fact, mortal. By bumping into the corpse, the narrator understands that to be “bad” is to court death, an inevitability that he suddenly realizes he would rather face later than sooner. The narrator’s rejection of both drugs and the possibility of easy sex at the end marks the beginning of a settled, more careful life haunted by existential fear.
“Greasy Lake” stands as fine example of another of Boyle’s dark obsessions, this time with death, dissolution, and the tendency of ordered systems to dissolve into chaos. One of his more genuinely touching stories, the frequently anthologized “Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail,” recounts the death of legendary blues musician Robert Johnson (the title is derived from one of Johnson’s own compositions). In the final moments of his life, Johnson sympathizes with a dog he saw poisoned when he was fifteen years old, surrounded by people who could do nothing but put it out of its agony with a blow to the head with a shovel. Like the dog, Johnson ends his life surrounded by onlookers but ultimately alone in a changing world he does not care to understand. Beneath the humor lies a message to which Boyle seems to return often: The universe is a frightening, unpredictable place, and each person must find his or her own solitary way to negotiate its absurdities.
Boyle has received high praise from a wide range of sources, includingThe New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Kirkus Reviews, for his unique and consistently entertaining voice in the world of contemporary literature. This collection, whose appearance near the end of the millennium and penchant for exposing the dark depths of the human psyche make it appear as if it were intended to be a handbook for the apocalypse, is no exception.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1920.
Boston Globe. November 12, 1998, p. E6.
Library Journal. CXXIII, September 15, 1998, p. 115.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 22, 1998, p. 4.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 8, 1998, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, September 21, 1998, p. 71.
The Village Voice. November 10, 1998, p. 132.