When “T.C. Boyle Stories II” arrived with a thunk on my doorstep, I thought: This guy’s got a lot of nerve. Here’s his second volume of collected stories, weighing in at more than 900 pages, and most of them have already been published two or three times — in magazines, anthologies and/or previous collections. The book is in fact four books in one — “After the Plague,” ”Tooth and Claw,” ”Wild Child” and “A Death in Kitchawank.” Only the last of these has never been published; only a quarter of the book, in other words, is new.
In his previous collection, published 15 years ago, Boyle arranged the book in three sections: “Love,” ”Death,” ”And Everything in Between.” Here he has forgone the thematic shuffle and presented the stories more or less in the order they were published. This is a better arrangement, I think, because it allows us to see his progress as a writer and to follow his obsessions as they got hold of him.
“Write what you don’t know and find something out,” Boyle advises in his preface. “All I want … is to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.”
These stories do have that Beat quality to them, the way they catch a voice and take off running, compound sentence spilling over compound sentence in a way that feels improvised. But there’s hidden craft in the sentences and dialogue, which crackle with intelligence and humor, and especially in the shape of these stories, their quick triggers and surprising turns, steady arcs and, for the most part, earned endings.
Critics over the years have marveled at Boyle’s range, the way he’ll follow up a dense historical novel with a swift contemporary one, and you can see his restless mind at work in these remarkable stories. The settings run up and down the California coast, from Los Angeles, where Boyle teaches, to Santa Barbara, where he lives, to the mountains and desert, and further afield, to the Midwest, New York, the East Coast, to Venezuela, India, France, Russia, the Shetland Islands, into the troubled past and troubling future.
His thematic range is astounding: community life, science and ethics, past as prologue, the culture of surveillance. He’s a satirist, a social realist, a dystopian. A literary shape-shifter, he seems impossible to classify.
Yet when I completed this Boyle volume, I could see a certain narrative formula. Nearly all of the stories involve one of three situations: desperate characters acting out; threatened animals lashing out; people making their way in strange lands. The desperate-characters stories are Boyle’s bread and butter, and these include some of his best-known pieces. In “Killing Babies,” ne’er-do-well Rick comes to stay with his abortionist brother, and as the “suet-faced Jesus-thumping” anti-abortion “zombies” threaten the doctor, Rick takes up arms.
In “Friendly Skies,” a madman is loose on a plane, and it’s up to passive Ellen to summon her inner warrior and save the day. In “The Lie,” Lonnie is tired of work but out of sick days, and one lie builds upon another until he tells his boss that his baby has died.
My favorite desperate-character story from the new material, “Sic Transit,” begins with this line: “There was a foul odor coming from the house — the odor, as it turned out, of rotting flesh — but nobody did anything about it, at least not at first.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, the narrator finds himself breaking and entering (a signature Boyle move), then stealing the diary of a deceased “third-tier” rocker from the forgotten band Metalavox. From this diary the narrator imagines and investigates a tragic life that could have been his own.
The volume is full of stories about threatened animals lashing out. Among these are a serval (“Tooth and Claw”), a houseful of cats (“My Widow”), a cloned Afghan hound (“Admiral”), a ragtag pack of dogs (“Dogology”), an elephant (“Almost Shooting an Elephant”), a bear (“Search and Rescue”), a tiger (“Question 62”), a rattlesnake (“The Silence”) and more.
Some of the best stories, like “Wild Child,” examine the merging of human and beast, and echo the central impulse of Boyle’s plots: What happens when a person or culture stops acting civilized?
A third kind of story, people making their way in strange lands, usually launches a conceptual hook. “After the plague — it was some sort of Ebola mutation passed from hand to hand and nose to nose like the common cold — life was different,” Boyle writes in his stunning postapocalyptic story “After the Plague.”
Whether he’s writing about survival in a wasted environment or people and animals coming unhinged, Boyle never fails to captivate, to deliver his ideas within the conveyance of first-class storytelling. “Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes,” writes another master of the short story, Charles Baxter. And few “make a scene” like the characters in a T.C. Boyle story. It takes a lot of nerve to publish this much and reissue this often, but quite a bit more to write this well.
T.C. Boyle Stories II