The best thing about T. Coraghessan Boyle’s stories? The unpredictability. Characters who are real and dynamic, somehow known to all of us, yet not quite our next-door neighbors, inhabit his imagined worlds. But, especially in the darker pieces, the cavalcade of bad choices and illogical maneuvers wins over the rational actions, time and time again.
The roughly chronological collection represents stories from the mid-1990s to the present and are divided into four sections: After the Plague, Tooth and Claw, Wild Child, and A Death in Kitchawank. As Boyle acknowledges, his defining moment as a would-be writer came when he read A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND and realized he could start in one mode --- familiar comedy, say --- and end wickedly in another. The 50-plus stories have only a few things in common. Many are told in first person, and the narrators may be isolated, divorced, alcoholic, lonely or misguided. These storytellers, however, are keenly aware of their circumstances and foibles, and their imminent propulsion into disaster. They are not necessarily likable, but they hold our attention.
"The 50-plus stories have only a few things in common. Many are told in first person, and the narrators may be isolated, divorced, alcoholic, lonely or misguided. These storytellers, however, are keenly aware of their circumstances and foibles, and their imminent propulsion into disaster. They are not necessarily likable, but they hold our attention."
Each story’s opening holds rich promise: “I like my wife fine and we had a pretty smooth run of it over the years but there was a sort of --- oh, what do I want to say here? --- expectedness to the days that sometimes bore down on me till I felt like a piece of furniture that hasn’t been moved in a lifetime” (“My Pain is Worse Than Your Pain”). Expectations vary for where the narrator may go, but the plot moves into territory quite unexpected and he ends with “when you talk about pain, it comes in varieties and dominions nobody can even begin to imagine.” By the end of the story, the completely unsympathetic storyteller learns only that his loneliness and misery are unequaled.
In “The Night of the Satellite,” a decommissioned 20-year-old NASA climate satellite scientists had been tracking strikes Paul. He is stunned. Later, after a hot spell, too much drinking and an argument, his wife throws it in a dumpster and he gets in the car and leaves. He has no words to say, but wants to tell her she should pay the rent, and “if she went out at night --- if she went out at all --- she should remember to look up, look up high, way up there where the stars bur and space junk roams, because you never can tell what’s going to come down next.” His rage is understandable, and there is something equally understandable about his desire to show her what she does not know.
Another common thread is isolation. Boyle sets many of these stories in uncompromising, solitary places: A glass booth for Boomer as he tries for the world record of sleeplessness (“The Kind Assassin”). A secret pregnancy and her own apartment (“Captured by the Indians”) hold Melanie captive for a terrifying night as she anticipates a killer on the loose who rides the trains. In “What Separates Us from the Animals,” a sad busybody tries to welcome the new doctor to an island community and discovers her own loneliness.
The epigraph for STORIES II is the fifth stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The question raised is whether to prefer the beauty of “the blackbird whistling/Or just after.” It seems that Boyle’s storytelling asks the same of his readers. Is there wonder in the galloping, headlong stories that make us realize how well Boyle observes human nature? Or is there wonder in the reflections and afterwards when we consider how beautifully each piece holds together?
You decide as you settle in and travel the twisty roads of T.C. Boyle’s fiction.
Reviewed by Jane Krebs on November 8, 2013