Three decades of T.C. Boyle


Sunday, January 24, 1999

by T.C. Boyle. Viking. 693 pages. $35.

     Although T. Coraghessan Boyle now abbreviates his middle name (a practice begun with last year's novel "Riven Rock"), brevity did not govern the compiling of "Stories."
     At nearly 700 pages, this doorstop of a book includes 70 stories -- all of his four collections plus seven previously uncollected. With plots that keep you turning the pages, "Stories" stops you from propping it against the door. Though the book is hefty, its stories are concise, engaging and memorable.
     The narrative twists would be more unexpected if the stories were not grouped in three categories -- "Love," "Death," "And Everything in Between." But even within the expectations created by these labels, Boyle keeps your attention. In his world, a Hollywood public relations expert tries to modernize the Ayatollah's image, Lassie finds herself attracted to a coyote and Boyle himself goes on a date with Jane Austen. Even if one were able to guess where these stories were headed, the way in which they get there is hardly predictable.
     Though the above may suggest a parade of oddities, other stories offer moving insights into the despairs and joys of vulnerable people. In "Little America," an aging man with a fraying mind (perhaps clouded by Alzheimer's, although we are not told) gets off at the wrong train station and becomes lost amid the homeless of a city he no longer recognizes. "Sitting on Top of the World" introduces a woman who lives and works in a lookout tower, watching for fires, alone but for her two-way radio and the occasional visitor. But neither she nor we can tell if one man's visits promise welcome company or an insidious threat and such uncertainty elicits a tense, unsettling feeling.
     If this sometimes dark realism places Boyle in the company of E. Annie Proulx, his comic sense is worthy of Dickens or even, at times, Rabelais. Take Willa Frank, the restaurant critic "who would wield her adjectives like a club" and restaurateur Albert D'Angelo's strategy to "seduce" her with food. From the fulgent catastrophe of her first visit to the surprising cuisine of her third (and last), "Sorry Fugu" keeps the reader rapt, savoring every sentence.
     There are, of course, weaker stories. One could do without the self-indulgent cruelty of "Drowning," a very early story. Boyle more successfully develops the primal themes of "Caye" in later work such as "Hopes Rise" and "Descent of Man." If the occasionally underdone piece is one of the pitfalls of collected stories (instead of selected stories), the advantage is to let us watch his work develop over the last three decades.
     The arrangement of "Stories" recalls a well-crafted mix tape, in which each successive piece picks up on a motif from the previous one. "The Big Garage," a Kafka-esque tale of car repair, segues smoothly into "Zapatos," in which a shoe merchant cleverly navigates a corrupt bureaucracy. "Big Game," a satirical update of Hemingway where yuppie real estate agents hunt geriatric elephants and aging tigers through a simulacra "Africa" in southern California, leads us into "Greasy Lake," during which affluent teens hunt danger and -- like the yuppie hunters -- soon find themselves outmatched.
     Ranging from farcical to sad, satiric to realistic, wacky to moral, Boyle's stories display a writer sometimes learning but ultimately mastering the short story form.
     (Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of Charleston.)




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