Water Music, 1981
Budding Prospects: A Pastoral, 1984
World’s End, 1987
East Is East, 1990
The Road to Wellville, 1993
The Tortilla Curtain, 1995
Riven Rock, 1998
A Friend of the Earth, 2000
Drop City, 2003
Descent of Man, 1979
Greasy Lake, and Other Stories, 1985
If the River Was Whiskey, 1989
Without a Hero, 1994
T. C. Boyle Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1998
After the Plague: Stories, 2001
Born Thomas John Boyle, T. Coraghessan Boyle combines an affection for the surreal with a sure sense of comic voice and timing to produce fiction that is often bizarre but entertaining. After receiving a master of fine arts and doctorate degrees from the University of Iowa, Thomas John Boyle began teaching English at the University of Southern California. His work won him a Pushcart Prize in 1977, the St. Lawrence Prize in 1980, and the Aga Kahn Prize in 1981. Along with such contemporaries as Max Apple, he became a leader in the reaction against minimalist fiction. His characters, sometimes based on caricatures of figures from popular culture, are at times unusual in appearance or behavior, but they manage to think and talk as human beings. On balance, Boyle’s work presents a humorous if not always optimistic view of his times and of American culture.
Boyle’s first collection, Descent of Man, begins with an epigraph from Tarzan: “Ungowa.” The animal energy of that human utterance is an apt prelude to stories that examine what it means to be human. In the title story a researcher finds herself in love with a brilliant chimpanzee who translates abstract philosophical works, including Charles Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man, into the symbol language called Yerkish. The sureness of Boyle’s ear for comedy is apparent in the opening paragraph of “We Are Norsemen,” a story about raping and plundering Vikings who have their times of depression. The often subtle gender differences are the subject in “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the protagonist is led by his obsession with feminine behavior to renounce his own sex. There is much graphically described violence in the stories in Descent of Man, but because Boyle handles it with wit and ironic intelligence, it generally enlightens rather than frightens.
Water Music is a long, picaresque novel that manages to be many things at once. On one level it is a strong, fast-paced account of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park and his hairbreadth escapes from torture and death in Africa. It is also the story of Ned Rise, a small-time London thief who seeks to elevate himself. Water Music is told, as often as not, in a jazzy twentieth century American slang that mocks solemn nineteenth century sentimentality. The presence of an intrusive narrator who is always ready to point out ironies or make jokes at the expense of the characters and capable of inserting chapter titles such as “Oh, Mama, Can This Really Be the End?” (quoting the songwriter Bob Dylan) is reminiscent of eighteenth century satires.
Budding Prospects is both a novel and a kind of handbook for the growing of marijuana–or rather a cautionary account of how not to grow it. At the same time it is a wry commentary on the passing of the hippie generation and the introduction of business tactics into the distribution of controlled substances. Vogelgesang (German for “birdsong”), an ephemeral confidence man, hires a team of ambitious former hippies to raise a crop of marijuana; the enterprise is doomed from the beginning, but Felix, the narrator, survives the experience with his dignity and sense of humor intact. The conflict between marijuana growers and society, exemplified by the policeman Jerpbak, is as melodramatic as Jerpbak’s mirrored sunglasses. There is both comic relief and philosophical content in this novel.
In the collection Greasy Lake, and Other Stories Boyle recaptures the strangeness of his earliest work but adds a seasoned, patient acceptance of the weaknesses of human nature that was missing in stories such as “Descent of Man.” Here the title story, with its epigraph drawn from the rock singer Bruce Springsteen, relates a night out for several young suburban males who “wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out on the street [and] left a patch of rubber half a block long.” The rest of their adventure is an equally strange interplay of the romantic and the real, with the ultimate reality of death coinciding with the destruction of a station wagon. The implicit satire on the shallowness of rock culture is carried over into “All Shook Up,” in which a bad Elvis Presley impersonator flashes across the paths of a couple with troubles of their own. Other stories in the collection deal with such themes as surrogate motherhood (“Caviar”) and pie-in-the-sky politics (“The New Moon Party”) with varying degrees of surrealism. The most effective piece in the collection is a somber reminiscence of the final days of Robert Johnson, a blues guitarist of the 1930’s.
In World’s End Boyle creates a sprawling novel with multiple layers and strands of plot and a large, often bizarre cast of characters. In the largest sense, the novel is about the Hudson River landscape and the character of its citizens; it spans more than three hundred years of history and an equally wide range of socioeconomic classes. Its twin poles are the Peekskill Riots of 1949, in which a group of neo-Nazis assaulted Jews and African Americans, and the events surrounding the establishment of Dutch family dynasties in the seventeenth century. The Van Brunt family begins life in America as indentured servants to the wealthy Van Warts, and the descendants of the two families are intertwined in the twentieth century events. Many of the story’s incidental details, and something of the character of the protagonist, Walter Van Brunt, are autobiographical and based on Boyle’s adolescence in Peekskill (called “Peterskill” in the novel). World’s End is an effective combination of history and comedy that reinforces Boyle’s significant place in contemporary fiction.
Boyle’s next three novels reflect the diversity of his interests. East Is East depicts a young Japanese man suffering a fatal dose of culture shock in the swamps of Georgia. The Road to Wellville is based on the efforts of John Harvey Kellogg to reform American health while his brother, Will, and other entrepreneurs and confidence men try to make their fortunes by manufacturing cereal in turn-of-the-century Battle Creek, Michigan. The Tortilla Curtain, another examination of cultural differences, racism, and middle-class mores, describes the dilemma of suburban Los Angeles whites confronted with illegal immigrants and the immigrants’ struggles to survive in their hostile environment. Boyle’s approach here is more realistic and less comic than in his previous fiction.
Riven Rock returns to the theme of turn-of-the-century medical quackery that informed The Road to Wellville with a story also based on real people. The focal character is Stanley McCormick, the son of the inventor of the McCormick reaper, who goes mad in 1905 and must be confined to a prisonlike mansion-cum-sanatorium outside Santa Barbara, California. The novel takes place over the ensuing twenty years, as his wife, Katherine, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a believer in the powers of science, attempts to bring him a doctor with a workable cure. A Friend of the Earth, in contrast, moves into the future with a vision of the ecological disaster that has overcome the planet by the year 2025. The plot revolves around Tyrone Tierwater, a former ecoterrorist, and his ex-wife Andrea, who reenters his life and provokes a realization of the waste of his life. Drop City, taking place in the 1970’s, delves into the social dynamics of a counterculture commune as it relocates from California to Alaska.