T. Coraghessan Boyle Biography

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.

Biography

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400

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.

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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.

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