Boyle's character-driven, darkly humorous fiction holds a mirror up to manhood, addiction and death
November 3, 2013 12:00 AM
By Susan Balee
This second collected edition of T.C. Boyle's short stories (58 of them) won't be one you want to drop on your foot (it's more than 900 pages long), but you'll have to be careful because once you start reading, you won't want to stop until you're done.
By T.C. Boyle. Viking ($45).
These stories offer a master class in the techniques of fiction. Check out some of Mr. Boyle's incredible opening lines. "She wasn't tender, she wasn't soft, she wasn't sweetly yielding or coquettish, and she was nobody's little woman and never would be." Like Chekhov, Mr. Boyle focuses first on character. Read an opening line like this, and you want to know why "she" isn't soft. More important, what made her tough? Mr. Boyle does women well, but the most familiar character in his oeuvre has to be the alcohol- and/or drug-fueled screw-up, such as the narrator of "Killing Babies," his prize-winning story of 1996: "When I got out of rehab for the second time, there were some legal complications, and the judge -- an old jerk who looked like they'd just kicked him out of the Politburo -- decided I needed a sponsor."
Many of my favorite stories treat the strange hijinks of men like this, guys who try to impress a girl and find themselves harboring a wild cat in a small apartment ("Tooth and Claw"); working-class guys who came of age in the '60s and got caught between a rock (and-roll) and a hard (Vietnam) place. Guys whose stories begin, "My childhood wasn't exactly ideal, and I mention it here not as an excuse, but a point of reference" ("Up Against the Wall"). Liars tell fantastic stories, in both senses of that word, and nothing generates lies better than a substance-abuse problem. Mr. Boyle knows all addicts share one signature trait -- denial of reality -- and denial, silky smooth or rough as hemp, threads the tangled webs his characters weave. Juxtapose a charming liar and a clear-eyed child and the result is a masterpiece titled "Balto" (2007).
Mr. Boyle is a showman, as his cover portrait of a frowning 60-something hipster reveals. He sports an Irish 'fro to go with his goatee, a red lounge jacket over a black T-shirt emblazoned with a barren tree (or maybe a mandrake root), and his creepy stare reminds me of the "whale eyes" dogs display just before they bite.
Like Alice Munro, he can conjure an entire universe in a handful of pages, though his tales feature pyrotechnics she would eschew. He likes dramatic situations (apocalypse, acute alcoholism and animal fetishes recur as themes) and, in his earlier tales he emulated not only the best traits of Flannery O'Connor (vivid, original prose and tremendous humor), but also her worst: abrupt, violent endings. If O'Connor had lived past 39, her stories probably would have grown more nuanced, too, and this collection's long time span (1998-2012) shows readers that Mr. Boyle's certainly have. Time and constant practice have burnished his skills; he's expanded his empathy without losing any of his wit.
Consider the differences and similarities of two stories in this collection, an early and a late, dealing with long lives at their denouement. "Rust," the early tale, shows us Walt and Eunice, an old couple in decline. She watches TV all day, and he drinks. A crisis occurs when Eunice lets their dog out and it doesn't return.
"He didn't know where the dog was, though he knew where his first bourbon and water of the day was -- right there on the TV tray in front of him -- and it was 11:00 A.M., and plenty late enough for it." Walt goes outside to find the dog, falls and can't get up, and his life's many disappointments unscroll before him while he lies in the dirt waiting for Eunice to notice he's gone. Unfortunately, here the story falters: a dead child is thrown into the plot to justify Walt's decades of unhappiness. This dead-child device is too obvious (though used constantly by lots of writers).
At least the black humor doesn't dry up; Eunice comes out to find Walt, trips over him and breaks her hip. They lie dying in the grass, the dog licking them but not emitting a single bark to alert someone who might help. As in all his stories, the prose shimmers. "This was what it all came down to: the grass, the sky, the trumpet vine and the pepper tree, the wife with her bones shot full of air and her hip out of joint, the dog on the porch, the sun, the stars." Fun story but not, ultimately, profound.
"A Death in Kitchawank," published last year in The New Yorker, takes on a similar topic -- the long lives of an American family, told from the wife and mother's point of view -- and manages to be both nuanced and deeply profound. Boyle shapes a suburban housewife's life into an epic worthy of Achilles. Best of all, the writing will provoke shivers of sheer delight in readers.
It's autumn, so let me close this review with one of those shivery fine lines. "Time jumps and jumps again, the maples struck with color, the lake giving up a thin sheet of wrinkled ice along the shore, then there's the paucity of winter with its skeletal trees and the dead fringe of reeds stuck like an old man's beard in the gray jaws of the ice."
Susan Balee is a regular book reviewer for several national publications. She lives in the East End.
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