T. Coraghessan Boyle Boyle, T. Coraghessan - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

T. Coraghessan Boyle 1948–

(Born Thomas John Boyle) American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry provides criticism on Boyle's works through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 36 and 55.

An author of irreverent comic fiction, Boyle is often likened to such absurdist writers as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon for his bleak vision and black humor, and for exuberantly stylized prose which blends the archaic with the contemporary and the erudite with the colloquial. Boyle has explained that he is fascinated by history as a means of understanding the present, and he has satirized diverse historical epochs as well as contemporary America. His fictional treatments of both past and present are praised for their intricate plots and their detailed evocations of the spirit of the times. However, Boyle is most widely acclaimed for the manic energy of his prose, variously described as anarchic, bawdy, and lyrical. As Charles Dickinson has written, "No one writing fiction today has his touch with the language, the inspired word, the sense of humor, the playfulness, the sheer weight of talent."

Biographical Information

Born in Peekskill, New York, a town located on the Hudson River, Boyle grew up in a working-class, Catholic family. Although he claims that he did not read fiction until he was eighteen, he recalls being intrigued by the newspaper stories his mother read to him. Boyle, a self-proclaimed hellion who cut classes and abused drugs throughout his youth, enrolled at the State University of New York at Potsdam intending to major in music, but "didn't have the discipline to do the practicing." He began writing as a junior at Potsdam, when he enrolled in a creative writing course. Following his graduation from college, Boyle taught high school English in Peekskill to avoid serving in Vietnam. During this interval he published his first short story, "The OD & Hepatitis RR or Bust," in The North American Review, and this piece won him admission to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Once enrolled in the Workshop, Boyle became eligible to take classes in the English department and began work on a Ph.D. in literature. "The minute I got there," he has written, "I grew up. Instead of cutting classes, I sat in the front row and took notes." Although his declared specialty was the Victorian period, Boyle received his doctorate in 1977 for a collection of short fiction published two years later as Descent of Man, and Other Stories. He currently teaches English and creative writing at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Major Works

Following his 1979 debut, Boyle published several collections of short stories, and many of the motifs introduced in Descent of Man recur throughout his short fiction. One of these themes is his conviction that, beneath the technological innovations and ostensible sophistication of modern life, humans remain primitive beings who fall into one of two categories-predator or prey. Boyle traces the struggle between these two groups in Greasy Lake, & Other Stories (1985), If the River Was Whiskey (1989), The Collected Stories (1993), and Without a Hero, and Other Stories (1994). Other themes in his short fiction include the tension between reason and instinct, the self-indulgent materialism that he considers endemic to consumer society, and the jaded complacency that results, in his view, from media excesses. Boyle has explained that his first novel, Water Music (1981), "comes out of having done a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century British literature," citing the essays of John Ruskin and the novels of Charles Dickens as particular influences. Set in Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century and replete with the historical and philosophical disquisitions that characterize much nineteenth-century fiction, Water Music—which took Boyle three and a half years to write—interweaves two plot strands, one involving the historical Scottish surgeon Mungo Park's quest for the source of the Niger River and the second concerning Ned Rise, a fictive criminal from the London slums who takes part in one of Park's expeditions. For his second novel, Budding Prospects (1984), Boyle chose a more contemporary subject that required less laborious research. Set in Northern California, the novel concerns the experiences of a group of marijuana farmers and satirizes the American myth that hard work guarantees success. In terms of both critical and popular reception, World's End (1987) represented a watershed for Boyle. Recounting the tangled histories of three families living in the Hudson River valley, the narrative alternates between scenes featuring the seventeenth-century members of these clans and depictions of their descendants in the 1960s; the more recent passages also feature flashbacks to the 1920s and '30s. World's End, which won a prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988, drew many new readers to Boyle's work. His fourth novel, East Is East (1990), first alternates between and then conjoins the stories of Ruth Dershowitz, an ambitious but untalented writer staying at a South Carolina artists' colony, and Hiro Tanaka, a young Japanese sailor who considers himself a samurai warrior and who goes AWOL to search for his American father. In The Road to Wellville (1993), Boyle mocks the excesses related to the American infatuation with health food in a plot that entwines the stories of several characters with varying relationships to a turn-of-the-century sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Set in southern California, The Tortilla Curtain (1995) contrasts the struggles of Cándido Rincón and his wife América, a pair of illegal aliens from Mexico, with the privileged lifestyle of Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a pair of yuppies.

Critical Reception

Admiring the creative discipline that enabled Boyle to publish ten volumes between 1979 and 1994, critics have particularly appreciated the substantial cultural and historical research evident in Water Music, East Is East, and The Road to Wellville. Many also have commended the inventiveness of Boyle's plotting, although some have charged that the structure of World's End remains too byzantine to follow. Others have contended that Boyle's enthusiasm for style further burdens the already cumbersome plots of his novels, and many have maintained that the narrative pacing of World's End, East Is East, and The Road to Wellville becomes especially tedious. Commentators have also noted that the influence of such English comedic novelists as Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens is evident in Boyle's reliance on ensemble casts; many, however, have charged that the predictable interaction of such casts reveals the latent determinism and reductiveness found in Boyle's application of ecological predator-prey models to human social dynamics. Moreover, critics often have maintained that Boyle utilizes ensemble casts because this broader focus facilitates his interest in mocking his characters' behaviors rather than exploring—or empathizing with—their motives. As Lorrie Moore has written, "Boyle is not psychological. He's all demography and zeitgeist." "[Boyle] can write," Bill Seligman has argued, "and he can imagine, with more energy than any of his contemporaries. But energy isn't enough; there's only so far you can go on sheer technique. And until he goes further, he'll remain a satirist cut off from the oxygen of morality." Nevertheless, Boyle, whom Bill Marx has described as "the self-styled wildman of American letters," is almost universally praised for consistently producing a humor unsurpassed in contemporary fiction, despite occasional lapses into adolescent crudity. Most critics have additionally praised Boyle's prose style, which they laud as supple enough to evoke a far broader range of emotions.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Descent of Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1979 Water Music (novel) 1981
Budding Prospects: A Pastoral (novel) 1984
Greasy Lake, & Other Stories (short stories) 1985
World's End (novel) 1987
If the River Was Whiskey (short stories) 1989
East Is East (novel) 1990
The Collected Stories (short stories) 1993
The Road to Wellville (novel) 1993
Without a Hero, and Other Stories (short stories) 1994
The Tortilla Curtain (novel) 1995

Geoff Dyer (review date 26 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Collision with History," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 1, No. 12, August 26, 1988, p. 36.

[Dyer is an English critic. In the following review of World's End, he maintains that complex time shifts and elaborate familial relationships exacerbate the novel's slow pace.]

In his last two books—the novel Budding Prospects and Greasy Lake, a collection of stories—Coraghessan Boyle took off in the opening paragraphs like a sprinter exploding from the blocks. For the first 150 pages of [World's End], by contrast, you are left flicking back to the list of characters trying to grapple with dozens of almost identical names:...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 2 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories In Which the Unusual Is the Usual," in The New York Times, May 2, 1989, p. C18.

[In the following review of If the River Was Whiskey, Kakutani contends that Boyle, now depicting yuppies rather than hippies, has here used his "disparate talents" to produce "showy, but shallow effects."]

The America of T. Coraghessan Boyle is a wild and crazy place, where anything can happen. In his most recent novel (World's End), a garrulous epic that chronicled the fortunes of several generations of a single family, "the barbaric new world" of America spawned ghosts and demons, not to mention every imaginable variety of human eccentricity and prejudice....

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Elizabeth Benedict (review date 14 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Having a Good Time with Our Worst Fears," in The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1989, pp. 1, 33.

[Benedict is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review of If the River Was Whiskey, she praises Boyle's humorous, satiric treatment of contemporary society as entertaining but finds his somber stories more rewarding.]

Half a dozen shysters, a talking three-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, a mendacious adoption counselor, a Los Angeles public-relations man hired to "upgrade" Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's image, a woman who makes her lover wear a "full-body condom" when he goes to bed with her—even the Devil...

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Richard Eder (review date 21 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short-Story Canvas Small for a Large-Scale Brush," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 1989, p. 3.

[An American critic and journalist, Eder received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the following review, he contends that the stories in If the River Was Whiskey are flawed by Boyle's awkward plotting and maintains that novels provide a better vehicle for Boyle's talents.]

The stories in If the River Was Whiskey are for the most part short tales, many of them ironic or satiric, and with a touch of contemporary fable to them.

T. Coraghessan Boyle, who wrote Budding Prospects, a fresh and funny novel about a...

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David L. Ulin (review date November-December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lost in the Funhouse," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December, 1989, p. 5.

[Below, Ulin favorably reviews If the River Was Whiskey.]

T. Coraghessan Boyle has never been one to shy away from the challenges of his own imagination. Throughout the course of his career, he has written with astonishing energy and originality about a carnival of characters and situations; his work—and particularly his short work—is based on a willingness to be outrageous, to take risks, to tap into the essential absurdity of the universe and let it run its course. It's no surprise, therefore, that like his previous story collections, If the River Was...

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David Stanton (essay date January-February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with T. Coraghessan Boyle," in Poets & Writers Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 1, January-February, 1990, pp. 29-34.

[In the following excerpt from an essay based on an interview with Boyle, Stanton discusses Boyle's education and provides an overview of his career up to the publication of East Is East.]

"A large part of what motivates a writer is a need to express oneself," Boyle says, "but you don't want to express yourself in a closet. You want to let the world know that you are alive in this time and age, and that you have something to say about it. And so the next largest part of what motivates you is to get [your work] out to the public and to...

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Gail Godwin (review date 9 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Samurai on the Run," in The New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1990, p. 13.

[Godwin is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, she praises Boyle's "virtuoso language" and "cross-cultural insights" in East Is East.]

This irresistible novel is T. Coraghessan Boyle's finest yet. It has the vital language and inventiveness of plot that we have come to expect from him, but this time there is a keener focus of intention, a more profound level of empathy than were evident in his previous novels—even the ambitious and highly imaginative World's End, which won the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.


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Oliver Conant (review date 12-26 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nothing to Laugh About," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXIII, No. 15, November 12-26, 1990, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Conant disparages East Is East's plotting, characterization, and prose as superficial.]

A young sailor in the Japanese Merchant Marine, Hiro Tanaka, jumps ship off the coast of Georgia, swims ashore and tries to survive on his own as an illegal alien. Such is the unlikely premise of T. Coraghessan Boyle's farcical, often crude and, on occasion, mordantly funny new novel [East Is East]. Despite its heavy does of unreality, the account of Hiro's brief, disastrous sojourn in the New World is at times strangely compelling....

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Tom Hymes (review date November-December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of East Is East, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1990, p. 23.

[In the following review of East Is East, Hymes asserts that Boyle's characterization and plotting serve short stories better than novels but notes that his wit prevents the book from becoming tiresome.]

T. Coraghessan Boyle is a writer who's hot, relatively new in town, and very good. He has a glib wit and a superb attention to detail. He is his best, though, when his talents are geared toward his short stories. His novels can have the feel of elongation and a certain weightlessness, as though they have been stretched a little too thin and...

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Robert Towers (review date 17 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Enigma Variations," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, Nos. 1 & 2, January 17, 1991, pp. 31-3.

[Towers is an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following excerpt, he observes that, although Boyle's satire is "more farcical than witty," East Is East is a funny book, particularly in its portrayal of the protagonist, Hiro Tanaka.]

T. Coraghessan Boyle's third novel, World's End, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1988. It is a long, complex work, a kind of mock history of a Hudson River community that jumps backward and forward from the 1660s to the 1960s. Often satirical, full of grotesque and comically...

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Andrew Rosenheim (review date 22 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Crusoe in Georgia," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4590, March 22, 1991, p. 19.

[Rosenheim is an American novelist and critic. In the following review of East Is East, he praises Boyle's vivid, humorous style.]

T. Coraghessan Boyle writes a rich and masterful prose which enhances his visceral attachment to the story he tells. In East Is East, Hiro Tanaka is half Japanese, half American, bastard product of a hippie guitarist's union with a Tokyo bar hostess. Embittered by a Japanese childhood spent being ostracized as a half-breed, Hiro heads West, lured by the promise implicit in America's composition: "polyglot tribe, mutts and...

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Jane Smiley (review date 25 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Snap, Crackle, Pop in Battle Creek," in The New York Times Book Review, April 25, 1993, pp. 1, 28.

[Smiley is an American educator, novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the review below, she discusses The Road to Wellville, focusing on Boyle's characterization as she compares the novel to Boyle's previous works.]

Throughout his career, T. Coraghessan Boyle has shown a special affinity for dirt and a special relish for depicting the feckless self-absorption of the post-war generation. In his early story "Bloodfall," seven commune dwellers who wear only white are subjected to a rain of blood, then feces, but their response is to...

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Robert Cohen (review date 30 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Flakes, Nuts and Capitalists," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1993, pp. 2, 11.

[Cohen is an American educator, novelist, and short story writer. In the following review, he maintains that, despite Boyle's prodigious comedic gifts, The Road to Wellville proves too shallow and crude to sustain interest.]

One of the more endearing and exasperating facets of the American appetite is its hunger for self-improvement. Think of Bill Moyers and his attentive, homespun, secular romanticism; he roams from coast to coast like a political candidate—our candidate—on an eternal campaign for betterness, for a philosophy or paradigm that will lend...

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Craig Seligman (review date 4 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Survival of the Cruelest," in The New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 14, October 4, 1993, pp. 43-5.

[In the following review of The Road to Wellville, Seligman surveys Boyle's career, contending that the novelist's "pyrotechnical exhibitionism" fails to conceal the "black-hearted fatalism" that ultimately renders all his works simplistic.]

A sanitarium is a funny place to set a novel if you don't believe in cures. But the Battle Creek Sanitarium, temple to healthy vegetarian living and stomping ground of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943), apostle of colonic hygiene and inventor of the cornflake, is where T. Coraghessan Boyle, a pessimist if there ever was...

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Malcolm Bull (review date 6 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Corn," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 6, 1994, pp. 19-20.

[In the excerpt below, Bull comments on Boyle's The Collected Stories, nothing the opposition between body and reason and the prominence of such motifs as water and alcohol.]

If Haile Selassie, whom some remember as a bit of a biker from his days of exile in the West of England, had been stretched to 6′3″ and given a part in Easy Rider, he would have looked rather like Tom Coraghessan Boyle as he appears on the front of the Collected Stories—an improbable confection of soulful eyes, hollow cheeks, frizzy facial hair and black leather. But although the...

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John Mort (review date 15 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Without a Hero, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 12, February 15, 1994, p. 1035.

[In the following excerpt, Mort comments favorably on Without a Hero, and Other Stories.]

If he wants to, Boyle can summon the angst for your standard realistic novel. In this collection's title story ["Without a Hero"], for example, he tells of a newly divorced fellow who inadvertently becomes the host of a young Russian woman who is awestruck by the bounty of America; our distinctly unheroic narrator won't marry her and thus forces her into prostitution. Boyle draws from this premise an indictment of capitalism as well as two engaging character studies. His mockery is...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 14 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Without a Hero, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 11, March 14, 1994, p. 68.

[Below, the critic presents a favorable review of Without a Hero, and Other Stories.]

Most effective of the 16 technically ingenious and rudely funny, satirical stories in Boyle's fourth collection [Without a Hero] are the sketches of disaffected individuals who take refuge in hermetic surroundings, self-help programs, political causes and conspicuous consumption to hold at bay the banal world of convention and compromise. In "Big Game," Bernard Puff, impresario of Puff's African Game Ranch in Bakersfield, Calif., peddles a simulacrum of the African bush....

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Lorrie Moore (review date 8 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "No One's Willing to Die for Love," in The New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1994, p. 9.

[Moore is an American short story writer, novelist, educator, and critic. In the review below, she remarks favorably on the stories in Without a Hero but laments Boyle's inability to go beyond sarcasm.]

Readers of T. Coraghessan Boyle's amazing stories are probably most familiar with the salacious Lassie in "Heart of a Champion," the Bruce Springsteen song run amok in "Greasy Lake" or the updated Gogol of "Overcoat II." Mr. Boyle situates his fictional ideas at the center of an available culture and then bursts forth with strange, engaging narratives that neither...

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Francine Fialkoff (review date 15 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Tortilla Curtain, in Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 11, June 15, 1995, p. 92.

[In the review below, Fialkoff remarks favorably on The Tortilla Curtain.]

Appearing after the wackiness of The Road to Wellville, Boyle's sixth novel [The Tortilla Curtain] is a dash of cold reality. The lives of two couples living in Topanga Canyon (Los Angeles) intersect when Delaney Mossbacher slams his car into Cándido Rincón. But the couples couldn't be more disparate: Delaney is a nature writer ("Pilgrim at Topanga Canyon") whose wife, Kyra, is a successful realtor; the Rincóns are illegal aliens camping out, looking for any work at all,...

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Scott Spencer (review date 3 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pilgrim of Topanga Creek," in The New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Spencer faults Boyle's presentation of the two story lines in The Tortilla Curtain as uneven.]

Viking has somehow got the idea it has another Grapes of Wrath on its hands. Then again, T. Coraghessan Boyle may have contributed to the delusion by using a few lines from Steinbeck's novel as the epigraph to his own meditation on the dispossessed and the American dream, California style. But while Steinbeck's tale of the Joad family was the very apotheosis of the proletarian novel, with its almost surreal emotional clarity and passages...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bell, Pearl K. "Fiction Chronicle." Partisan Review LVIII, No. 3 (1991): 482-92.

Admires Boyle's imaginative resourcefulness, stylistic exuberance, and detailed research in East is East, but criticizes the novel as shallow and cruel.

Birnbaum, Jane. "To Live and Discriminate in L.A." Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 September 1995): 4.

Mixed review of The Tortilla Curtain.

Blaise, Clark. "Down the Natural Path." Chicago Tribune Books (9 May 1993): 1, 9.

Praises the...

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