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.