T. Coraghessan Boyle’s story, ‘‘The Underground Gardens,’’ was first published in the New Yorker in the May 25, 1998, issue, and was collected in 2001 in the author’s short-story collection After the Plague. The story is loosely based on the life of an Italian American immigrant who began digging a huge underground complex on his land in Fresno, California, in the arid San Joaquin Valley, in the early 1900s. Using this historical person and elements of his life as a start, Boyle crafts an optimistic story about an Italian American immigrant whose hopes— including marrying the woman of his dreams—are repeatedly dashed, but who nevertheless perseveres and continues to dream. This story is unlike many of Boyle’s works, which poke fun at the human condition or contain large doses of cynicism, sarcasm or other forms of negativity. Instead, Boyle examines positive ideas such as the power of faith and the importance of self-sufficiency. The story is, however, similar to many of Boyle’s other works, in that it uses an actual historical event—in this case, Baldasare’s digging of his gardens—as a starting point for the narrative. A copy of the story can be found in the Penguin paperback edition of After the Plague, which was published in 2003.
‘‘The Underground Gardens’’ begins with a short biography of Baldasare Forestiere, a thirty-twoyear- old Italian American immigrant who has survived by his digging skills, which he learned in his father’s Italian orchards and which he honed through working as a laborer in American cities. It is the summer of 1905, and Baldasare has purchased seventy acres of central California land through the mail. He is optimistic about this real estate investment. Having heard about the lack of cold weather in California, he assumes that the land will be suited for growing his own vineyards.
Baldasare finds that, while the land never freezes, it is dry and nearly impenetrable, but this does not discourage him. First, he buys the necessary materials and builds himself a small shanty. Then, he uses his agricultural knowledge to find water and dig a well. He plants some seeds, but the hard California land is not fertile enough to produce much. He starts working for another farmer to replenish his savings, and just as he is getting depressed that he will never achieve his dream, he meets Ariadne Siagris, the young niece of a Greek drugstore owner, and falls instantly in love.
Baldasare finds new inspiration, which motivates him to work toward a new dream—marriage to Ariadne. Rain leaks into his flimsy shanty that night, so he digs a cavern the next day, thinking that it will someday be the cellar for the house in which he and Ariadne will live. Yet, as the rain returns, Baldasare moves all of his possessions into the cellar, and begins to fashion an underground house, including a stove and storage shelves. Since there is little laboring work that winter, Baldasare continues adding to his underground residence, digging out hallways and rooms.
His one indulgence is his weekly hamburger at Siagris’ Drugstore, where he strikes up an acquaintance with Ariadne. Baldasare observes that Ariadne is not very smart at some tasks, is rapidly putting on weight, and has whiskers on her chin and red blotches on her skin, among other imperfections— but these traits only make Baldasare love her more. For two years, Baldasare continues the pattern of working for other men to make money, digging out his underground...
(The entire section is 890 words.)