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Stories II: The Collected Stories of T Coraghessan Boyle, Volume II, by TC Boyle, Bloomsbury, RRP£30 / Viking $45, 944 pages
TC Boyle, with his absurdist flights of the imagination and tendency to verbal bombast, is a sort of Frank Zappa of American letters. Not only has he fronted a rock band (the now quite forgotten Ventilators) but he has also experimented with psychoactive drugs. As the author of 14 acclaimed novels, moreover, he loves to “perform” or read from his books in front of an adoring public. It is easy to see why Boyle has become a literary icon for America’s baby boom generation. His zany black humour and tales of chemical excess make him a modish figure, whose trademark goatee beard and ear-jewellery enhance the counter-culture image.
Born in 1948 in Peekskill, New York, Boyle claims not to have read a book until he was 18. His Irish immigrant parents had little time for literature and, according to Boyle, drank themselves to death. Boyle’s second collection of short stories (the first was published in 1998) is, not surprisingly, fraught with reflections on the dangers and delights of alcohol. As the season of good cheer approaches, Stories II would make a cautionary Christmas present. The illusion of drink-fuelled happiness is familiar to most of us, even if the hangover seems a cruel price to pay. The 58 stories here (14 of which have not been published before) demonstrate that one needn’t drink to excess every day to be alcoholic.
In “Killing Babies”, a man indulges in self-destructive benders with stretches of sobriety in between and can scarcely hold down his day job in a doctor’s surgery. Booze is the vexing devil that creeps up unseen on the narrator of “When I Woke Up This Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone”, a Raymond Carver-like story which has the savour of an old blues ballad. (“Drinking – the taste for it – ran in his blood, sure it did”, Boyle says of the story’s hiccup-wracked anti-hero Jimmy.)
Like the Beat writers before him, Boyle documents American life in the underbelly of New York state and in the California provinces. His stories brim with wise guys, potheads, pimps and prostitutes, as well as unhappily married couples, small-town bartenders and peep-show employees. Their instinct for survival in the face of impending divorce, unemployment and mental illness makes them oddly heroic. Boyle chronicles their lives in precise if often lurid detail. In “Achates McNeil”, a pot-smoking university student tries to reach an accommodation with his monstrously vain father, who happens to be a famous writer with a goatee and a 25-year-old’s dress sense. Boyle is quite open about his egotism and love of fame. “I’m a tremendous ham,” he said in a Paris Review interview this year. “I love the attention.”
Many of the stories, with their surreal, fairy-tale-like atmosphere, suggest the influence of European fabulist writers such as Italo Calvino. In “La Conchita”, a dispatch driver struggles to bring a human liver to a hospital in time for a woman’s transplant operation. His progress is impeded by a sudden mudslide which has clogged the traffic on the highway. Another great story, “The Swift Passage of the Animals”, tells how a couple are forced to abandon their car during a snowstorm in the wilds of southern California. A drama of extremity and isolation, it radiates menace.
In “The Underground Gardens”, an allegory that unfolds in California desert chaparral, a Sicilian-born labourer named Baldassare Forestiere is determined to build a new life for himself in terrain outside Fresno. Having lost his girlfriend to a rival suitor, he digs a subterranean palace for himself only to encounter a proliferation of dead-end labyrinths – surely a nod to Calvino’s short pastiche of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
Boyle is clearly happiest writing about California. “Blinded by the Light”, a macabre whimsy titled after the Manfred Mann song, investigates an outbreak of skin cancer cases in Long Beach and their likely cause. Along the way, Boyle alludes a good deal to rock and jazz. Lynyrd Skynyrd, saxophone legend John Coltrane and the late Lou Reed are all dutifully namechecked. Boyle’s impasto of rock-savvy patter (“I made myself a Bloody Mary with a can of Snap-E-Tom, a teaspoon of horseradish and two jiggers of vodka …”) gives the collection a noirish sheen.
At over 900 pages, Stories II is heavy on the wrists and the quality of the writing varies. Boyle has a weakness for hyperbole (a woman’s kaftan is so capacious it “could have sheltered armies”). He might have been advised to sift the jewels more effectively from the indifferent material. As it is, we have a somewhat overstuffed pudding of a collection.
Still, Boyle is incapable of writing a boring sentence; at his best he is a master of the short story form. “Chicxulub”, a powerful exploration of family bereavement, radiates a morbid sense of unease. “My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night”, it begins; as this is TC Boyle we know that no good can come of that roadside darkness.