T. C. Boyle’s collected short stories (1998) amply confirmed his impressive imagination and facility with language and narration. In these 16 new ones, nine of which appeared in The New Yorker in recent years, Boyle again displays his ease in entering the minds of his principal characters and moving comfortably in their sneakers into lives of quiet desperation. For the most part he locates them in southern California, where he mercilessly shines a desert sun on the nooks and crannies of their heavily pocked lives, much like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Franz Kafka. He has Kafka’s unnerving sense of humor as well.
This is not to suggest that Boyle’s landscape is oppressive; in fact, his stories make compulsive reading, at once familiar and bizarre, his protagonists sadly dominated by images from film and television. The worlds vary from story to story, each of them an investigation of some facet of contemporary America populated by oddballs with truncated dreams and a predictable reliance on liquor. Despite their self-deception, they throw themselves into the role of knight in shining armor with a verve that is both laughable and energizing.
There are stories of men in remote Alaska competing for visiting women, of ex-cons protecting clients at an abortion clinic, of a man and a woman left alone after a virus has decimated the country, who find they can’t stand each other. The classic example of this genre is Mexico, an hommage to Malcolm Lowry’s sad novel of dissolution, Under the Volcano. There are stories of tough young women competing in marathons, of old ones fighting off drunken fools on cross-country flights and would-be robbers in their homes.
Then there are the tales of more creative contest with the world, like the sisters who have every plant ripped up from their property to conform with their decision to have only black and white objects surrounding them in their desire for a simplified life; or the college girls who post their daily activities on the Internet to pay their tuition; the immigrant farmer who builds a home completely underground to echo the burrowing work he had earlier done on tunnels in Boston and New York. Most haunting are stories like Captured by the Indians, a meditation on the limits of civilization in the face of violence that seems to lurk just below the surface of Boyle’s various anonymous lives, or The Love of My Life, about a very young couple’s decision to let nothing, including their newborn, separate them from each other. In several of the stories there are allusions to the ethical dangers of art in such a world, most memorably demonstrated in Going Down, in which a man becomes so absorbed in a story that his wife’s car wreck in a snowstorm becomes something that can be dealt with after another 15 pages of reading.
Boyle is a master of description: the radio announcer who always sounded as if he were straining over a bowel movement; the troubled doctoral student who was shouting something, ragged, angry syllables that could have made no sense to anyone, even a Theorist; the recessive neurotic who could hear the children shrieking as if the skin were being peeled from their bodies in long, tapering strips. His happy characters (and there are a good many) cope with the barely suppressed mayhem with a simple wisdom: You measure your life in dogs, one notes, and if you’re lucky you’ll get five or six of them. Boyle’s writing seems effortless, but it clearly isn’t.