Poor Stanley McCormick. The depraved son of one of the greatest inventors of the nineteenth century, Stanley is doomed to spend most of his life confined to an enormous estate in Southern California while his wife, Katherine, spares no expense searching for the doctor who can cure him. For two decades Stanley leads a limited existence at Riven Rock, accompanied by a group of well-paid nurses, gardeners, cooks, and psychologists. And as the world outside struggles with war and disease, survives physical and economic disaster, and witnesses dramatic social change, Stanley continues to make diminutive steps toward achieving a normal life while his millions continue to pile up. Unfortunately, even Stanley's considerable wealth won't buy him his sanity or freedom from the luxurious prison that he helped build.
But Stanley's palatial prison is just one of many ironies contained in this whimsical work of historical fiction -- and which characterize it as a truly Boyle-esque tale. There is Katherine's steadfast fidelity to a marriage that was never consummated; Eddie, the philandering playboy, who tosses his conquests aside as soon as he tires of them, but who hungers for the one woman he can't have; and Stanley's violent, sexual aggression towards women, whom he loves with "an incendiary passion that is indistinguishable from hate." Boyle also manages to inject notes of high hilarity into what is basically a very sad story. The various doctors with their respective theories and styles could have stepped out of a Marx Brothers musical, as could the scene in which Katherine accompanies Julius the ape to an elegant hotel. And Stanley's treatment of the poor German teacher he drags home to please Katherine is as comical as it is heartbreaking. Another technique typically employed by Boyle is hyperbole. The author often populates his novels with larger-than-life figures: the richest man in America, the most clueless of doctors, the most overbearing of mothers, and, in the case of Katherine, a woman possessing the kind of intellectual brilliance and strength of character that, almost by necessity, accompanies a blind insensitivity to the needs of someone as fragile as Stanley. Irony, comedy, and hyperbole render this and Boyle's other novels unforgettable, transforming an historic footnote into a luminous, illuminating work of fiction that says as much about contemporary America as it does about the historical figures it depicts.
It is the role of the literary historian to paint a vivid picture from the outlines that fact provides. But the writer who chooses to use true life as a springboard toward a largely imagined story faces, perhaps, a greater challenge. He or she must impose on the facts moods and themes that feel organic to the history they represent. T. C. Boyle has a wonderful talent for turning history into fiction. In Riven Rock, as with his earlier novel, The Road to Wellville, Boyle starts with a germ of fact and a few larger-than-life personalities and spins a marvelous tale -- the details of which can strain credulity. (According to Boyle, some of the most outrageous incidents in this novel are actually true.) But he has chosen to keep his readers in the dark about where history ends and fiction begins. So be it. In his capable hands, deft as a magician's, we are willing to suspend disbelief.