What Lurks Beneath

Book cover
Tooth and Clawby T. C. Boyle

Viking. 284p $25.95


In his new short story collection, T. C. Boyle has gone a step further than William Butler Yeats, who conveyed in his poem “The Second Coming” the alienation and disconnectedness of 20th-century life with the memorable image, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” Boyle describes a creepily fascinating 21st-century world in which the falcon is more likely to swoop down and attack its handler. This stimulating collection offers Darwinian reminders of the threats lurking beneath the decorous surface of our lives.

In “Jubilee” a retiree moves to a planned community in Florida to escape “the anonymity, the hassle, the grab and squeeze and the hostility snarling just beneath the surface of every transaction, no matter how small or insignificant,” only to find that even in this most studiedly halcyon of settings, people find they are thrust unexpectedly into a world of “tooth and claw.” Mosquitoes carry encephalitis and dengue fever, and alligators displaced from their natural habitats lie in wait for inattentive recreational boaters. In Boyle’s world there is more than a casual link between the avarice of the developers and the revenge Nature exacts on the homeowners.

In “The Swift Passage of the Animals” Boyle tells a truly frightening story reminiscent of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Zach and his date, Ontario, having met just three weeks earlier on the rebound from divorce and breakup, set out in a snowstorm for an isolated lodge in the southern Sierra Mountains. Zach is a bit addled by his vanity and his impending sexual prospects, and he ignores warning signs about the weather and the need for tire chains. When the car spins out in the mounting snow, his sedentary lifestyle proves to be a modern-day tragic flaw, because he and Ontario must try to hike out of their dire predicament. Ontario is an expert on extinct animals and recognizes in their plight a harbinger of humanity’s fate. She asks Zach, “You know what killed off the glyptodont?” She gives the succinct answer: “Stupidity.” Many of Boyle’s characters are like Zach, stupid in a way that passes for hipness.

We have the geological evidence, Boyle seems to say, proving that meteors and asteroids regularly destroyed large swaths of the planet’s living beings, and they parallel such domestic cataclysms as losing a child in a car accident. When Nature’s harsh, random calamities strike, they produce major philosophical shockwaves. One narrator ponders, “So what does it matter? What does anything matter? We are powerless. We are bereft. And the gods—all the gods of all the ages combined—are nothing but a rumor.”

One cannot say that Boyle’s characters have crises of faith, since they have no faith to debunk or discard. With titles like “When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone,” or “All the Wrecks I’ve Crawled Out Of,” these stories signal to the reader what to expect: a literature of aftermath. No one is young or starting out fresh in life, except for the children and young adults, and they are especially prone to accidents and violence. For example, Boyle offers a rich, evocative description of the abyss of pain and suffering that parents feel upon losing their 18-year-old son in a fraternity hazing incident.

A veritable river of alcohol flows through the lives of Boyle’s characters, precipitating miserable marriages, acts of violence and homelessness. Boyle has an excellent ear for bar life and dialogue, and he populates his stories with the kind of ritual drinkers one might find in the cafe of a Hemingway short story. He writes of one character, “He was at the tail end of a week-long drunk and he felt sick and debilitated, his stomach clenched around a hard little ball of nothing, his head full of beating wings, the rasp of feathers, a hiss that was no sound at all.” This “little ball of nothing” is philosophically akin to the “nada,” or nothingness, at the heart of Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Some simulacrum of love occasionally intrudes into the lives of Boyle’s characters, but usually without lasting effect. The barstool becomes a traffic control tower from which to watch collisions, couplings and casual betrayals. Again there is a kind of alcoholic nihilism: “Gradually, the bar filled up. The startled-looking woman and her husband went in to dinner and somebody else took their place. Nothing was happening. Absolutely nothing.” In a perhaps too obvious theological allusion, Boyle gives the name Grace to one of the regular patrons, who ends up drinking herself to death.

Fortunately, Boyle also includes in this collection a remarkable amount of humor in diverse forms—witty, sardonic, droll or outright hilarious. Without Boyle’s brilliant sense of humor, the reader would quickly bog down in his incisive cultural critiques.

In the book’s eerie title story, a 23-year-old wastrel named Junior Turner wins an African serval cat in a drunken wager at a bar, and takes the animal home to keep in a bedroom. The exotic nature of the cat initially fills his lonely life and empty apartment, and also draws a young woman there who is curious about the strange beast. Momentarily without work or companionship, beginning to drink ever earlier in the afternoon, Junior has been sleepwalking through his life without making any significant decisions until the startling conclusion of the story. It is as if Boyle wants to portray in Junior some contemporary version of J. Alfred Prufrock but with the ominous difference that Junior places himself in risky proximity to an untamed beast.

When Boyle’s emblematic characters go at life “tooth and claw,” they feel the pressures of predation shifted from the wilderness to the office, the bar or the home. All life, Boyle seems to say, is not only post-traumatic but also exists in conscious or semi-conscious anticipation of the next trauma. He offers compelling cautionary tales about how short the distance is from hip to hapless, and from hapless to hopeless.

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