Urbanity in the Wilderness

Book cover
Wild Childby By T. C. BoyleViking. 320p $25.95

In his prolific literary career, T. C. Boyle has crafted numerous novels and short stories that deliver trenchant cultural critiques while at the same time they offer a good-humored metaphysical shrug at the craziness that passes for life. Many of his best stories take place in environments threatening to humans in some unexpected way, but they come from an authorial voice that is irrepressibly sociable. Think Jack London after a couple of gin and tonics—the snow or ice are just as life-threatening, but somehow there’s a warm glow sustaining people through it all.

Boyle’s newest collection of short stories, Wild Child, features 14 tales that in one way or another feature lost or threatened souls. Boyle chose the epigraph for his book from Henry David Thoreau: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau had a vision of environmental sustainability in mind when he made this statement, but Boyle is also interested in the wilderness that either strengthens or undermines human nature. He notes the limits, contradictions and vulnerabilities of “civilization,” calling the reader not to a nostalgic revision of the notion of Rousseau’s noble savage, but to a more nuanced sense of the predicament of being human in a world that can quite suddenly and unexpectedly become threatening.

This thematic concern connects Boyle to early moments in American literature, when Puritan authors sharply contrasted their fledgling “City on a Hill” with the dark surrounding forest wilderness, whose denizens were regarded as ignoble savages in league with the devil. Of course Puritans were projecting their own fears of inner wildernesses, but they were also referring to very real external threats to civic and individual survival.

In Boyle’s opening story, “Balto,” 12-year-old Angelle faces a no-win courtroom situation after her father had picked her up at school in an intoxicated state and asked her to drive the car, leading to a minor collision with a pedestrian. If the girl lies in court and confirms her father’s statement that he was driving he will lose his driver’s license but keep custody of her, whereas if she tells the truth that she was driving, he may be deemed an unfit parent and lose custody of her. So Angelle faces a triple wilderness here—the court of law, her father’s abuse of alcohol and a severely fractured family context.

In “Question 62” two sisters living in different parts of the country experience revelations that free them, at least momentarily, from somewhat bleak existences. Mae lives in Moorpark, Calif., and to her complete amazement she encounters an escaped tiger near her garden. The tiger suggests Boyle’s view that contemporary American cities are still something of a jungle, at times literally so, and the large feline provides a flash of illumination, in the vein of William Blake’s “Tyger, tyger burning bright,” helping Mae to transcend the boundary between civilization and wilderness. Boyle observes, “What she felt then was grace, a grace that descended on her from the gray room of the morning, a sense of privilege and intimacy no one on earth was feeling.”

As Mae’s story unfolds, Boyle weaves in a tale about her sister Anita, who leads a lonely life in a Wisconsin trailer park. Her husband was murdered by a crazy, drunk neighbor, and she now works the graveyard shift at a nursing home. A very strange stranger comes into her life, bringing her a momentary surcease from her sorrows, but he is like Manly Pointer, the weird bible salesman in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People.” He is not what he seems to be on the surface.

Several times in this collection Boyle juxtaposes two characters in distress such as Anita and Mae, so that his thematic concerns may resonate or bounce between the characters to amplify their sense of alienation. In one of the collection’s best stories, “Ash Monday,” an alienated and alienating teenage boy comes across as a threat to his next-door neighbors, Japanese immigrants who fiercely miss their homeland and struggle to coexist with their neighbors in a fire-prone canyon near Los Angeles. The result is a haunting, disturbing and quite beautiful story.

The collection’s title piece, “Wild Child,” is a novella set in 1797, when a feral child was discovered in the forests of southern France. Boyle’s masterful descriptions in this 60-page work make clear that the first reports of a child wandering in the forest sparked a series of challenging questions and issues: “People needed a mystery to sustain them, a belief in the arcane and the miraculous.” Once the boy is captured, major philosophical and social questions arise: “Was man born a tabula rasa, unformed and without ideas, ready to be written upon by society, educable and perfectible? Or was society a corrupting influence, as Rousseau supposed, rather than the foundation of all things right and good?” Boyle makes clear that the boy also is making assessments of his captors/liberators: “What he smelled was ranker than anything he’d come across in all his years of wandering the fields and forests of Aveyron, concentrated, pungent, the reek of civilization.”

By the end of this collection, it is clear that the wild child of the title may just as easily be a teenager in a California courtroom, a middle-aged divorcée or a true feral child rescued from a French forest. Boyle seems to imply that we are all wild children, and that the best coping mechanism is to employ a mature, imaginative voice to keep telling stories of the wilderness. That way we may keep in the forefront of our consciousnesses how the wilderness keeps us human.

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