T. Coraghessan Boyle Critical Essays

T. Coraghessan Boyle American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Water Music

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 criminals and the gallows on the no-less-dangerous streets of London. Each chapter ends in a traditional cliff-hanger as the reader is whisked from the Niger to the Thames and then back again until the twin picaresque streams of the story merge, when Park returns to England a hero and Rise narrowly escapes death. Both feel the need to escape England and civilization, such as it is, which they do when Park makes his final (for him, fatal), disastrous expedition to the Niger River.

The novel has much purely visceral appeal; it is filled with sufficient sex and violence to hold the interest of even the most superficial and adolescent reader. Boyle is only following in a tradition, however; such violence and degradation were the stock and trade of the picaresque novel, which constituted the pulp literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Boyle uses the picaresque mode only as the means by which he can play with fictional conventions in an exuberant way. It is the language of the book that most catches the discriminating reader, combining as it does high-flown eighteenth century rhetoric with the flat and slangy language of the twentieth century. Other writers, such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme, have tried this technique with more success, but Boyle seems to take a great delight in his play with language, a delight the reader often shares.

Water Music is black humor at its blackest and most humorous. Called “High Comic Book Fiction” by one reviewer and a virtuoso performance on a grand scale by another, the book was both hailed for its inventive use of the picaresque/experimental mode and blasted for its comic-strip bathos and superficiality. Regardless of this mixed response, it is the book that made T. C. Boyle a name to reckon with in American literature.

“Greasy Lake”

First published: 1985 (collected in Greasy Lake, and Other Stories, 1985)

Type of work: Short story

Three young men looking for adventure on a Saturday night find more than they bargained for.

“Greasy Lake,” the title story of Boyle’s best-received collection of stories, takes its title and its epigraph—“It’s about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88”—from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Spirit in the Night.” The story focuses on three nineteen-year-old men living in a time (probably the 1960’s) when, the narrator says, it was good to be bad, when young people cultivated decadence like a taste. Driving the narrator’s family station wagon, they search for some escape from their suburban shopping-center lives at Greasy Lake, where, on the banks of festering murk, they can drink beer, smoke marijuana, listen to rock and roll, and howl at the moon.

On the particular occasion of this story, however, at 2:00 a.m., these extremely “bad” characters meet someone more “dangerous” than they are. When they try to embarrass a friend in a parked car, they find out too late that it is instead a “bad, greasy” stranger, who begins beating them up. Things go from bad to worse when the narrator loses the key to the station wagon and cracks the greasy stranger on the head with a tire iron. When the three, caught up in the violence, begin tearing the clothes off the girl in the car, they are interrupted by the arrival of another man, who threatens to kill them.

All this intense physical action is described in a combination of fear-filled seriousness and silly slapstick—that is, until the narrator, trying to escape, is driven into the primeval swamp of Greasy Lake, only to find himself stumbling over a floating dead body. As he crouches there in the shallow water, he listens to the greasy stranger taking the...

(The entire section is 3257 words.)