Fiction: "Wild Child and Other Stories," by T.C. Boyle and "American Salvage," by Bonnie Jo Campbell.
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When short stories work well, they're perfect examples of what literature can achieve within these constraints. Perhaps it is the recent economic downturn, but it feels as though modern life has never been more precarious and the big guns in literary America are capturing everything.
First up is T.C.Boyle and his ninth short story collection. (Mr. Boyle has also published 12 novels.) Nothing is ever boring in Mr. Boyle's fiction.
Here, Mr. Boyle alternates between the edgy world of the self-absorbed Californian, worrying about fulfillment, and the l'enfant savage who appeared in the forests of France around the turn of the 19th century.
He entices the reader into the concerns and cares of his characters with an authoritative style that never dulls. His trademark is the quirky, even when it's retelling well-know mythology.
Standouts include "Balto" where young Angelle is forced to testify in court after an incident involving her alcoholic father who is too concerned with his own affairs to realize how his actions have damaged his oldest daughter.
In "Admiral," we have Nisha, the college graduate who returns to former employers so that they can re-create their dead dogs through a $25,000 cloned dog.
Like a television rerun, she is asked to repeat patterns of behavior so that the new dog will have the same experiences of the ones they once loved.
The title story takes us to the Languedoc region of France where Mr. Boyle re-examines the mythology of Victor of Aveyron, a young child who spent his childhood naked and alone in the woods and was civilized by a doctor at a school for deaf-mutes. Francois Truffaut's 1970 film, "The Wild Child," is another version of the story.
The novella-length story shows clearly why Mr. Boyle is often considered one of the most exciting writers working today. It's a sensitive study that switches points of view until it becomes deeply personal in a way that Truffaut's film could not.
The eyes of the world may be on Detroit these days but Bonnie Jo Campbell's gaze in her collection is placed firmly in rural Michigan where she carefully examines the world far removed from big money and big manufacturing woes.
Set on poor working farms and in small-minded communities, the characters are as unlikely to get off welfare as they are to give up their debilitating addictions. Ms. Campbell departs from writers who also portray the dirty realism of the razor-edged poor by focusing on character and presenting in each of her studies a refreshing honesty and insight that lingers long after the page has turned.
There is Doug, who drinks beer and parties on his 16-foot MerCruiser, navigating the lakes of lower Michigan with his friends and girlfriend but whose realization that the great expanse of the universe is probably shaped like a woman throws him into a quandary that incapacitates him.
The family in "The Trespasser" arrives at their summer cottage to find that it's been invaded by crystal-meth cookers. The sunshine-yellow walls in the kitchen are covered with soot, the windows smashed and everything in the place touched by the invasion. But it is the 13-year-old daughter's realization that crime and sex are often interchangeable that's the focus of this piece.
In "Boar Hog," Jill drives the muddy roads to a farm to buy the animal because dairy farming has proved too difficult and despite what everyone tells her about boar hog meat, she's going to take a chance on it.
The decrepit people she sees at the farm are indicative of the hog she's about to buy. But she goes ahead with it -- strong willed and hoping for a future that no one but she can imagine -- no one but she can make happen.
Ms. Campbell is a writer whose authority with her subject matter is strongly established, but it is her original voice, so refreshing and so smart, that stamps these stories as something all new, all her own.
"American Salvage," first published by Wayne State University Press, was a National Book Award finalist and a National Books Critics Circle Award finalist and should catapult this mid-list writer to a whole new level.
First Published February 14, 2010 12:00 am