T. C. BOYLE STORIES can be considered a greatest hits anthology. And like CD music collections of that ilk, it adds a few new numbers to the mix. Here, the greatest hits encompass every story published in Boyle's four short story collections, and seven "bonus tracks" previously unpublished or uncollected. Unlike most music compilations by one artist, no two numbers sound the same -– no mean feat in a 704-page, 68-story collection.
If you're a Boyle fan, you'll enjoy revisiting the old tales and treasure the new ones. If you haven't yet experienced Boyle's mastery of the short story, Wheee! –-You're in for a great ride.
Boyle is a vampire of a writer --- he always goes for the jugular. But never in quite the same way. His tone can be cynical. Tender. Vicious. Ironic. His prose is crisp, evocative, surprising, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, always finely detailed and often awe-inspiring.
The stories in T. C. BOYLE STORIES are preceded by a quote from "I Shot the Sheriff," Bob Marley's classic reggae song: "Reflexes got the better of me." It sets the stage perfectly, because it describes the fatal flaw shared by all the people populating Boyle's world.
Boyle's bent is best described by the title of his first short story collection, circa 1979: THE DESCENT OF MAN. It's a long fall, as Boyle time-trips through history's potholes with stories that range from the Monty Pythonesque Dark-
Age berserkers of "We Are Norsemen" to the totally modern moron obsessed with being the first of his gender to dine in "A Women's Restaurant." All 68 feature seriously flawed humans (that's all of us), and costar many nobler animals --- a recurring Boyle subject (I think he likes them better).
Pride. Greed. Lust. Murder. Lack of common sense. The tales pinpoint the deadly sins of their characters, and then punctures the protagonists like balloons --- with the cold hands of fate holding the needle. As People Magazine once observed, "...in T. C. Boyle's world anything can happen and usually does."
And anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Boyle is perhaps our most imaginative social satirist since Swift. With an O. Henry-gone-mad (or angry) talent for twists that depict people hoisted by their own petards: The unfortunate soul who laments losing his primate-studying girlfriend to a precocious and far more sophisticated chimp in "Descent of Man." The untold story of President Eisenhower's forbidden love affair with Khrushchev's wife at the height of the Cold War in "Ike and Nina." The deal that goes deliciously bad in "The Devil and Irv Cherniske." The ego-driven dolt who freeze-dries his crew and ultimately himself in "The Arctic Explorer" --- a newly collected misadventure.
I've noticed a softer nib on Boyle's acid-tipped pen of late. No less cynical, but a tone tempered by, what, maturity? --- as the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction rages into middle age at a slightly gentler volume. It can be seen in his most recent novels --- THE TORTILLA CURTAIN and RIVEN ROCK --- as well as in one of his latest, and greatest, short stories. "Juliana Cloth," published in New Yorker Magazine earlier this year and collected here for the first time begins, "She was just sixteen, and still under her mother's wing, when William Wamala first came to town with his bright bolts of cloth. He was a trader from the North, and he'd come across the vast gray plane of the lake so early in the morning he was like a ghost rising from the mist...the cylinders of rich cotton batik hanging limp over the prow of the invisible boat as if suspended in ether, no movement discernible but for the distant dip and rise of his arms, and all the birds crying out, startled, while the naked statue of his torso levitated above the still and glassy surface."
Magical realism worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And this from the one and only T. C. Boyle, America's last remaining literary Merry Prankster. The rebel without a pause. The sharpest wit and eye in short fiction today.
If you buy only one gigantic and expensive anthology of short stories by a single writer this year, this is the one to get.
Reviewed by Bob Charkow on November 1, 1999
T. C. Boyle Stories