WORLD’S END begins in 1968 in the fictitious town of Peterskill, New York (clearly modeled on Peekskill, but the change in name reminds the reader that this is a work of fiction, however deeply grounded in history it may be). Chapter 1 climaxes with a motorcycle accident which, as the reader knows from the first sentence, will cost twenty-two-year-old Walter Van Brunt his right foot. Chapter 2 is set in the same region of New York in the seventeenth century--a surprising shift, yet one that is anticipated by Walter’s hallucinatory visions in chapter 1. This opening establishes the pattern for the narrative, which alternates between the 1960’s (with flashbacks to the late 1940’s) and the seventeenth century, tracing the intertwined destinies of three families: two of Dutch descent (the Van Warts, prosperous and well-born, and the Van Brunts, common people) and one of Native American descent.
Within this ambitious framework, T. Coraghessan Boyle has several distinct objectives. He wants to demythologize cozy images of early American history; on a broader scale, he wants to show how thoroughly injustice has permeated American society from the Colonial era to the present. This is also a novel about fathers and sons, about the ways in which the betrayals of one generation are repeated in the next. The tone throughout, however, is not didactic but satiric--Boyle finds the idealists of the 1960’s generally ludicrous and ineffectual--and the humor is heavily flavored with grotesquerie.
Boyle is a seductive writer; his bravura effects can be intoxicating. Yet he does not know when to stop; what works well in a short story becomes overkill in a novel. A more fundamental weakness is his self-satisfied cynicism. Still, to readers who have become accustomed to the insipid, excuse-me prose of much contemporary fiction, WORLD’S END will administer a galvanizing jolt of linguistic energy.
Water Music (1981), T. Coraghessan Boyle’s first novel, is a black-humor vision of England, Scotland, and Africa in the late eighteenth century, a picaresque satire inspired by the life of explorer Mungo Park, in which many of the conventions of eighteenth and nineteenth century English novels are lampooned. Boyle’s second novel, Budding Prospects (1984), deals with a group of hapless marijuana growers in northern California, amoral pursuers of the materialistic side of the American dream. In World’s End, his third novel (he has also published two collections of short stories), Boyle combines the concerns of his earlier books into an account of the conflicts among Dutch and English settlers and native Indians of the Hudson River Valley of New York in the seventeenth century and the effects of these conflicts on their twentieth century descendants. Just as he embraced and spoofed English literary traditions in Water Music, Boyle here employs the mythical view of America so central to the fiction of such writers as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and William Faulkner. In examining some of America’s literary and historical myths, Boyle dramatizes the nation’s self-destructive impulse.
Oloffe Van Wart is granted a patroonship in what is now northern Westchester County, and in 1663, Harmanus Van Brunt and his family arrive from Holland to work on one of the farms of the patroon, the supreme ruler over everyone on his land. The Van Brunt farm is cursed even before the family begins to work it. The land has previously been settled by Wolf Nysen, a Swede who went berserk and destroyed his family, and before that, Minewa, the daughter of Sachoes, chief of the Kitchawanks, was eaten there by a Mohawk.
The Van Brunts are soon faced with one catastrophe after another. Jeremias, the eldest son, loses a leg to a snapping turtle. Harmanus is stricken by an insatiable hunger, eats virtually all the family’s food, and throws himself off a ridge. His daughter, Katrinchee, runs away with Mohonk, the son of Sachoes. After...
(The entire section is 2,874 words.)