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Tooth and Claw

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In ten novels and six previous collections of short fiction, T. Coraghessan Boyle has established himself as one of America’s most imaginative and entertaining writers. He is especially noted for his breezy colloquial style, his satire of American fads and movements, and his dark sense of humor. His most enduring character type is the young, white, American male, a kind of loose cannon who speaks in his own voice, reveals his various shortcomings (which usually involve alcohol, drugs, or sex), and as often as not becomes his own worst enemy. Boyle’s women characters, in contrast, tend to be intrepid and resourceful, showing few signs of ever having been repressed. These trademark attractions continue in Tooth and Claw, and Other Stories, Boyle’s seventh collection of short stories, all of which have been previously published in leading magazines. Some of these fourteen stories push the imaginative horizon far afield, ranging to other continents or centuries, examining relationships with other creatures, or taking dark humor to the verge of tragedy.

The collection gets off to an appropriate start with “When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone,” which has a generic quality about it. The story, like two or three of the others, is set in a bar, specifically the bar at Jimmy’s Steak House. The unnamed male narrator meets another man at the bar who seems to have been drinking nonstop for weeks or months. They introduce themselves, the other man consulting a sign for the bar and saying, “Just call me Jimmy.” “Jimmy” then tells the narrator a horrific story that explains why he is drinking like a fish: His college-age son died in a fraternity hazing incident, forced to consume too much alcohol and then choking on his own vomit. The next week, the narrator meets another man in the same bar who he thinks is Jimmy’s brother. The other man has another sad story to relate, this one about an alcoholic old woman, a family friend, who froze to death outside his front door. The narrator is a good listener to these twin tales of woe, but meanwhile he is nursing his own wounds. Despite its different strands, the story holds together remarkably well, the parallels, the generic name Jimmy, and the unifying elements of drink and the bar suggesting a common suffering humanity, even if, ironically, somewhat self-pitying and maudlin.

Other stories provide variations on these motifs. A number of stories feature sad sacks, men who have been around for a while but seem not to have gained much wisdom from their years. For example, another man who ends up crying in his scotch is Robbie Baikie, a big, hulking Unst Islander in “Swept Away”: “The light of the westering sun . . . laid the glowing cross of our Saviour in the precise spot where Robbie’s shoulder blades conjoined. He heaved a sigh thena roaring, single-malt, tobacco-inflected groan it was, actuallyand finally those massive shoulders began to quake and heave.” Robbie’s crucifixion comes from falling in love with a visiting American woman, an eager ornithologist who has near-perfect legs, face, and figure. He is saved from being swept away with her in a storm but not from the storm of remembrance that racks him daily as he “sits even now over his pint and his drop of whisky in the back nook at Magnuson’s.”

Robbie, the Shetland sheepman, is not as simple as some of the sad sacks in the other stories. In “The Kind Assassin,” Boomer, a struggling disc jockey at KFUN, lets himself be talked into an on-air publicity stunt even sillier than his radio personatrying to break the world’s sleep-deprivation record. When he sets a new record, he cannot understand that the quest was only hype and, like Franz Kafka’s hunger artist, wants to keep going. The biggest believer in hype, however, is Jackson Peters Reilly, a divorced snowbird who, in “Jubilation,” buys property in an expensive central Florida housing development allied with a theme park. To market...

(The entire section is 1,666 words.)