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...
(The entire section is 1218 words.)