Review by David Eric Tomlinson
“Some of everything for everybody!” Jack Kerouac booms to the bartender in T.C. Boyle’s short story “Beat”. It would have been the perfect book blurb for Boyle’s massive (and massively entertaining) collection “Stories”, seventy eclectic tales poking fun at the folly of the human race. Written over three decades and organized into three books (“Love”, “Death”, “… and Everything in Between”), Boyle’s stories are tightly-plotted, carefully-crafted set pieces which imagine eccentric characters in extreme circumstances, illustrating the absurdity inherent in the way we live, love and die.
Reading this collection cover to cover, we watch as Boyle imitates, reacts to, and interacts with major literary and philosophical movements, mastering the written word along the way. Boyle doesn’t just read the great works, he incorporates them into his own stories, often updating the characters and situations with some post-modern twist. Whether he’s commenting on the beat writers (“Beat”), the Cold War politicians (“Ike and Nina”), the Dadaists (“Dada”), Gogol (“The Overcoat II”), or Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (“Mexico”), Boyle isn’t afraid to topple heroes from their pedestals, imagining them as regular old folk: proud, inconsistent, often hypocritical … but also vulnerable, tender and (usually) likeable.
From the first story, “Modern Love” (a courting couple is so frightened of becoming infected with some virus or bacterium that their dates involve a battery of blood tests, finally the awkward protection of a full-body condom), to the last, “Filthy With Things” (a pair of compulsive hoarders seek intervention from a diabolic lifestyle coach, hoping to end their addiction to shopping), Boyle’s stories are drunk on language, with a refreshingly experimental approach to style, theme and point of view. This stylistic and thematic variation notwithstanding, many of Boyle’s stories are concerned with the raw power of nature. Boyle’s characters are always seeking either thrills or shelter from the creeping, crawling, oozing, implacable forces of nature – in doomed relationships, in downed airplanes, upon isolated mountaintop watchtowers, or behind the walls of concrete bunkers designed to withstand societal collapse.
But nature always seems to triumph in the end, mostly due to our all-too-human vanity, which lets us feel separate from the environment, somehow above it all. Here’s an excerpt from the hilarious “Descent of Man”, where a man competes for his girlfriend’s attentions with an unusually evolved primate:
The Primate Center stood in the midst of a macadamized acre or two, looking very much like a school building: faded brick, fluted columns, high mesh fences. Finger paintings and mobiles hung in the windows, misshapen ceramics crouched along the sills. A flag raggled at the top of a whitewashed flagpole. I found myself bending to examine the cornerstone: Asa Priff Grammar School, 1939. Inside it was dark and cool, the halls were lined with lockers and curling watercolors, the linoleum gleamed like a shy smile. I stepped into the BOYS’ ROOM. The urinals were a foot and a half from the floor. Designed for little people, I mused. Youngsters. Hardly big enough to hold their little peters without the teacher’s help. I smiled, and situated myself over one of the toy urinals, the strong honest smell of Pine-Sol in my nostrils. At that moment the door wheezed open and a chimpanzee shuffled in. He was dressed in shorts, shirt and bow tie. He nodded to me, it seemed, and made a few odd gestures with his hands as he moved up to the urinal beside mine. Then he opened his fly and pulled out an enormous slick red organ like a peeled banana. I looked away, embarrassed, but could hear him urinating mightily. The stream hissed against the porcelain like a thunderstorm, rattled the drain as it went down. My own water wouldn’t come. I began to feel foolish. The chimp shook himself daintily, zippered up, pulled the plunger, crossed to the sink, washed and dried his hands, and left. I found I no longer had to go.
And later, when our hero’s girlfriend brings this same chimpanzee home for dinner:
Konrad was impeccably dressed – long pants, platform wedgies, cufflinks. He smelled of eau de cologne, Jane of used litter. They arrived during the seven o’clock news. I opened the door for them. “Hello, Jane,” I said. We stood at the door, awkward, silent. “Well?” she said. “Aren’t you going to greet our guest?” “Hello, Konrad,” I said. And then: “I believe we met in the boys’ room at the Center the other day?” He bowed deeply, straight-faced, his upper lip like a halved cantaloupe. Then he broke into a snicker, turned to Jane and juggled out an impossible series of gestures. Jane laughed. Something caught in my throat. “Is he trying to say something?” I asked. “Oh potpie,” she said. “It was nothing – just a little quote from Yeats.”
“Yes, you know: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing.’”
In perhaps the most absurd and touching of these stories, the high-concept “Sinking House”, an aging widow allows her faucets, garden hoses, and sprinkler system to run non-stop for weeks. The woman’s next-door neighbor – a young housewife addicted to Pilates – begins to notice water seeping up through her own foundation, and discovers the sinking house next door. The neighbor confronts the seemingly oblivious widow (“Water?” she said. “What water?”), and we begin to understand that this woman has survived fifty years of domestic abuse. The police are summoned, and the widow is institutionalized. It is only after she is gone that the young housewife ventures next door, recognizing the similarities between her own fate and the widow’s:
Her feet sank into the mud, the earth like pudding, like chocolate pudding, and as she lifted her feet to move toward the house the tracks she left behind her slowly filled with water. The patio was an island. She crossed it, dodging potted plants and wicker furniture, and tried the back door; finding it locked, she moved to the window, shaded her face with her hands, and peered in. The sight made her catch her breath. The plaster was crumbling, wallpaper peeling, the rug and floors ruined: she knew it was bad, but this was crazy, this was suicide.
Grief, that’s what it was. Or was it? And then she was thinking of Sonny again – what if he was dead and she was old like Muriel? She wouldn’t be so fat, of course, but maybe like one of those thin and elegant old ladies in Palm Springs, the ones who’d done their stretching all their lives. Or what if she wasn’t an old lady at all – the thought swooped down on her like a bird out of the sky – what if Sonny was in a car wreck or something? It could happen.
She stood there gazing in on the mess through her own wavering reflection. One moment she saw the wreckage of the old lady’s life, the next the fine mouth and expressive eyes everyone commented on. After a while, she turned away from the window and looked out on the yard as Muriel must have seen it. There were the roses, gorged with water and flowering madly, the Impatiens, rigid as sticks, oleander drowning in their own yellowed leaves – and there, poking innocuously from the bushes at the far corner of the patio, was the steel wand that controlled the sprinklers. Handle, neck, prongs: it was just like theirs.
And then it came to her. She’d turn them on – the sprinklers – just for a minute, to see what it felt like. She wouldn’t leave them on long – it could threaten the whole foundation of her house.
That much she understood.
“All my humor is based on destruction and despair,” the comedian Lenny Bruce once said. “If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline.” T.C. Boyle is mining the same vein as Lenny, conjuring worlds that defy categorization: at once absurd, dangerous, scary, gross, farcical and – above all – funny. Like the woman in “Sinking House”, Boyle writes in order to empathize with his neighbors. He tries on styles, explores absurd situations, toys with literary conventions … all “just to see what it felt like”. This trial and error approach delivers the reader, in the end, to a more perfect understanding of the universe and our place within it.
“We’re all gonna die!” Bruce is rumored to have wailed into the microphone.
To which Boyle replies: Might as well die laughing.