This kind of cheerful nihilism—flat-souled Nietzscheism—is chilling and suggests how little Boyle seems to care about anything that he can't chew down into story fodder. His narrator genuflects toward the sadness of it all ("I was devastated, and the thought of the radical transformation of everything I'd ever known gnawed at me day and night"), but who can believe that when it's clear he really digs the new dispensation, which lets him browse through empty stores to pick up bottles of Dom Perignon, tool around in abandoned Rolls Royces, and hook up with the female survivors drifting about? The story, in fact, dwindles to nothing more than an ingenious, "entertaining" romantic triangle that, in the end, doesn't require the apocalyptic setting at all. So, you think, Boyle killed off six billion people for this? Hey, anything for a story. Who knows: maybe Boyle had just rented the video of The Omega Man and got inspired.
Everything about Boyle's work suggests the smooth technique and high flourish of the goateed, shiny-manicured magician, but the wonder he inspires is self-directed—wow, Boyle sure pulled that off, didn't he? He's a fop, finally, his work imploding in narcissistic self-regard, convinced that the only thing that really matters is pulling the next rabbit out of the next hat. But his greatest trick may have been to make the promise of his own extraordinary talent disappear into thin air. Voila.
After the Plague and Other Stories by T.C. Boyle; Viking, 2001. Hardcover, 303 pages, $25.95.