Three decades of T.C. Boyle
Sunday, January 24,
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
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.
Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of