T. Coraghessan Boyle American Literature Analysis
Boyle’s most pervasive fictional theme is the importance of history; his most predominant fictional method is satire. His two most ambitious novels to date, Water Music and World’s End, are both sprawling picaresque novels deeply rooted in history. Water Music is based on the actual adventures of Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer who became the first white man to explore the Niger River in Africa and who published a best-selling account of his adventures titled Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa in 1799. World’s End begins with seventeenth century native Indians and Dutch and American settlers of the Hudson River Valley of New York and traces the descendants of three families into the twentieth century. The Road to Wellville (1993) uses the historical character of John Harvey Kellogg, while The Inner Circle (2004) employs Dr. Alfred Kinsey to show additional permutations of the American Dream and its corrupting influence.
Whereas Water Music is modeled after both the eighteenth century picaresque novels of Laurence Sterne and the twentieth century send-ups of the picaresque novel by such writers as John Barth, World’s End builds on the American mythmaking tradition originated by Washington Irving as well as such modern American mythmakers as Thomas Berger. Even Boyle’s least mythic novel, Budding Prospects, a satiric send-up of the American Dream and the male escape fantasy, is deeply rooted in both the history of the Founding Fathers and the history of the hippie movement of the 1960’s.
Boyle’s stories, as is typical of the short story in general, are less dependent on history than are his novels. His short stories stand alone as independent satires, mostly on modern society and popular culture. Boyle’s first collection, Descent of Man, features such absurd situations as the canine film star Lassie leaving her master Timmy for a love affair with a coyote, a woman falling in love with a brilliant chimpanzee who is translating Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche into Yerkish, and a group of teenagers who are so stoned on drugs that they do not notice that it is literally raining blood.
Boyle continued this kind of absurdist satire and parody in his second collection, Greasy Lake, and Other Stories, but some of the stories in this collection have such control and achieve such a powerful significance that they go beyond simple satire. Although the collection contains parodies of Sherlock Holmes and Nikolai Gogol’s famous story “The Overcoat,” as well as such absurd stories as one about a secret love affair between Dwight D. Eisenhower and the wife of Nikita Khrushchev and a story about the mating of whales, it also contains such surrealistically sublime pieces as “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” about a baseball game that goes on forever, and such classic tragicomic nightmares as the title story. Critical response to Boyle’s 1989 collection of stories, If the River Was Whiskey, and his novel East Is East indicated that Boyle had not moved much beyond his earlier works. According to several critics, these stories often seem self-parodies and do not have the scope of his earlier picaresque efforts.
First published: 1981
Type of work: Novel
The lives of Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, and Ned Rise, a thief, intertwine in eighteenth century England.
Water Music is based on the real-life adventures of eighteenth century Scottish explorer Mungo Park as told in his book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa . It also focuses on the imagined adventures of Ned Rise, a member of Park’s final exploration party, who uses his wits to survive on the streets of London. Both men are classic picaros, one in the mode of the adventuring nobleman and the other in the mode of the unscrupulous rogue. In the first part of the novel Boyle moves back and forth between Park’s harrowing adventures in Africa as he escapes mutilation and death at the hands of savages and Ned Rise’s exploits as he evades the clutches of fellow...
(The entire section is 3,257 words.)