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."
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.
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.
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.