T. Coraghessan Boyle has invited comparisons to the great nineteenth-century writer Mark Twain throughout his career, and with good reason. Like Twain’s work, Boyle’s writing is characterized by a sharp and ironic sense of humor. An example of this is his wry novel about John Harvey Kellogg, The Road to Wellville. Yet Boyle’s books are more than lightweight comedies about the foibles of men. Underneath the tart humor is profound commentary about the society in which his characters live. In addition to his novels, Boyle has authored numerous short story collections, most famously Greasy Lake, which applies his unique sensibility to autobiographical tales of life in New York.
Facts and Trivia
Boyle’s given middle name was John. As a young man, he had it legally changed to Coraghessan.
The well-educated Boyle has a BA in English, an MFA in creative writing, and a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature.
Shortly after completing his doctoral work, Boyle received a creative writing grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.
For more than twenty years, Boyle has taught English at U.C. Santa Barbara.
Boyle’s epic World’s End earned him the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award. The novel takes place over three centuries in New York and is a smorgasbord of seemingly incongruous characters and situations.
Madison Smartt Bell was born on August 1, 1957, in Franklin, Tennessee. He was educated at the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and at Princeton University, where he won awards for fiction writing and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1979, he graduated summa cum laude. He then spent a year in New York working at various jobs and doing research and writing for the Franklin Library. From 1979 to 1984, Bell was a director of a film production company, the 185 Corporation.
After a year’s study at Hollins College, Bell received his master’s degree in English and creative writing in 1981. Back in New York, he continued working for the Franklin Library and also for the Berkeley Publishing Corporation. His first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, was published in 1983.
The following year, Bell moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and became an assistant professor of English at Goucher College, a position he held until 1986. In 1985, he married the poet Elizabeth Spires. After a year as a lecturer at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Bell returned to Goucher as writer-in-residence in 1988. He has also taught graduate writing seminars at The Johns Hopkins University.
Boyle has arguably become one of the most ambitious and enthusiastic American authors writing today. Both in the scope of his picaresque novels and in the perception of his satiric short stories, he has carved out a place for himself in the comic experimental tradition of Barth and Barthelme. He is not a slavish imitator of those writers, however; he has a unique voice that manages to hover delicately between the serious and the satiric, and he has his own vision of the importance of history in the American psyche.
Born into a lower-middle-class family in Peekskill, New York, in 1948, Thomas John Boyle was a rebellious youth who performed in a rock-and-roll band, committed acts of vandalism, and drank heavily. He did not get along with his father, a school-bus driver whose alcoholism killed him at fifty-four, in 1972. Boyle’s mother, a secretary, was also an alcoholic and died of liver failure. Assuming the name T. Coraghessan Boyle at the State University of New York at Potsdam, he studied saxophone and clarinet until he realized that he lacked the necessary discipline for music. He then drifted into literature. After college, to avoid military service during the Vietnam War, he taught English for two years at his alma mater, Lakeland High School, in Shrub Oak, New York, while indulging in heroin on weekends.
In 1972, Boyle entered the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, where he studied under Vance Bourjaily, John Cheever, and John Irving, earning a Ph.D. in 1977, with a short-story collection, later published as Descent of Man, serving as his dissertation. Such academic achievement is ironic for someone placed in a class for slow learners in the second grade. Boyle became a teacher at the University of Southern California, where he founded an undergraduate creative writing program, and settled in Woodland Hills with his wife, Karen Kvashay, and their children, Kerrie, Milo, and Spencer. One of the most public and flamboyant writers of his time, Boyle delighted in performing public and recorded readings.
Born into a lower-middle-class family in Peekskill, New York, in 1948, Thomas John Boyle was a rebellious youth who played drums, sang in a rock-and-roll band, and drove fast cars. He did not get along with his father, a school-bus driver whose alcoholism killed him at age fifty-four in 1972. Boyle’s mother, a secretary, was also an alcoholic and died of liver failure. Assuming the name T. Coraghessan Boyle at the State University of New York at Potsdam, Boyle studied saxophone and clarinet until he realized that he lacked the necessary discipline for music and drifted into creative writing. After college, to avoid military service during the Vietnam War, he taught English for two years at Lakeland High School in Shrub Oak, New York, while increasing his use of drugs, including heroin.
In 1972, Boyle entered the creative-writing program at the University of Iowa, where he studied under Vance Bourjaily, John Cheever, and John Irving. He also studied nineteenth century English literature and received a Ph.D. in 1977, with a short-story collection, later published as Descent of Man (1979), serving as his dissertation. He became head of the writing program at the University of Southern California and settled in Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, with his wife, Karen Kvashay (whom he met when they were both undergraduates), and their children, Kerrie, Milo, and Spencer. In 1992 the Boyles moved to Montecito, near Santa Barbara, and a 1909 house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The biographical facts of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s life abound with the incongruous juxtapositions that one finds in his fiction. Born and reared in Peekskill, a town in New York’s historic Hudson Valley, he has moved to teach in Southern California. A troubled son of alcoholic parents who himself indulged in a weekend heroin habit, he achieved early distinction for his fiction and has become that rare writer who earns critical respect and a wide audience.
Boyle was born Thomas John Boyle in 1948, but officially changed his middle name to Coraghessan when he was seventeen. He entered the State University of New York at Potsdam as a music major, but switched to English literature and writing. He enrolled at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied under John Irving and John Cheever, and was graduated in 1977 with a doctorate in nineteenth century British literature. That same year, he and his wife Karen, with whom he has three children, moved to California, where Boyle became head of the creative writing program at the University of Southern California.
Boyle distinguished himself as a writer capable of assuming a wide variety of personalities in his highly regarded first collection, Descent of Man, among them a rapist (“Drowning”), a female scientist (“Descent of Man”), an African dictator (“Dada”), and even a dog (“Heart of a Champion”). Subsequent collections garnered his stories comparisons to those of Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme for their audaciousness.
Boyle’s novel-length works expand the vivid scenarios of his short fiction. Water Music chronicles the adventures of nineteenth century British colonials exploring the Niger River, and World’s End describes the parallels among Dutch, Native American, and European American experience in the Hudson River Valley during three centuries. East Is East and The Tortilla Curtain focus on the plight of illegal aliens in America from, respectively, Japan and Mexico.
Invariably, Boyle’s novels show that people’s hopes and dreams are the same across all cultures and times, but that the different means of achieving them within a specific society lead to problems with comic and tragic dimensions. Boyle’s interest in the universality of human aspirations has allowed him to use themes as different as marijuana farming (Budding Prospects), physical fitness (The Road to Wellville), apartment clutter (“Filthy with Things”), and pop kitsch (“The Miracle at Ballinspittle”) as springboards for his inquiries into the human condition.
Born Thomas John Boyle, T. Coraghessan Boyle combines an affection for the surreal with a sure sense of comic voice and timing to produce fiction that is often bizarre but entertaining. After receiving a master of fine arts and doctorate degrees from the University of Iowa, Thomas John Boyle began teaching English at the University of Southern California. His work won him a Pushcart Prize in 1977, the St. Lawrence Prize in 1980, and the Aga Kahn Prize in 1981. Along with such contemporaries as Max Apple, he became a leader in the reaction against minimalist fiction. His characters, sometimes based on caricatures of figures from popular culture, are at times unusual in appearance or behavior, but they manage to think and talk as human beings. On balance, Boyle’s work presents a humorous if not always optimistic view of his times and of American culture.
Boyle’s first collection, Descent of Man, begins with an epigraph from Tarzan: “Ungowa.” The animal energy of that human utterance is an apt prelude to stories that examine what it means to be human. In the title story a researcher finds herself in love with a brilliant chimpanzee who translates abstract philosophical works, including Charles Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man, into the symbol language called Yerkish. The sureness of Boyle’s ear for comedy is apparent in the opening paragraph of “We Are Norsemen,” a story about raping and plundering Vikings who have their times of depression. The often subtle gender differences are the subject in “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the protagonist is led by his obsession with feminine behavior to renounce his own sex. There is much graphically described violence in the stories in Descent of Man, but because Boyle handles it with wit and ironic intelligence, it generally enlightens rather than frightens.
Water Music is a long, picaresque novel that manages to be many things at once. On one level it is a strong, fast-paced account of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park and his hairbreadth escapes from torture and death in Africa. It is also the story of Ned Rise, a small-time London thief who seeks to elevate himself. Water Music is told, as often as not, in a jazzy twentieth century American slang that mocks solemn nineteenth century sentimentality. The presence of an intrusive narrator who is always ready to point out ironies or make jokes at the expense of the characters and capable of inserting chapter titles such as “Oh, Mama, Can This Really Be the End?” (quoting the songwriter Bob Dylan) is reminiscent of eighteenth century satires.
Budding Prospects is both a novel and a kind of handbook for the growing of marijuana—or rather a cautionary account of how not to grow it. At the same time it is a wry commentary on the passing of the hippie generation and the introduction of business tactics into the distribution of controlled substances. Vogelgesang (German for...
T. Coraghessan Boyle was born in 1948, in Peekskill, New York, a small town on the banks of the Hudson River in the area made famous by Washington Irving in such stories as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The middle name, pronounced kuh-RAG-is-son, is an admitted affectation; his real name is Thomas John Boyle. His father was a school bus driver, and his mother was a secretary. Boyle’s grade school and high school education gave no indication of his future as a writer; in fact, he has said, in a typically facetious exaggeration, that he never read a book until he was eighteen, that he mostly read comic books and watched television. Music was his primary interest.