Boyles Toil and Trouble

So, another Boyle tome has come down the pike. Since 1979—in 22 years—T. Coraghessen Boyle has published 14 books, most of them thick, enthusiastically reviewed novels like Water Music and The Road to Wellville. Lots of them are best-sellers, and he has won a slew of literary awards, including several O. Henry prizes for his short stories, the PEN/Faulkner award for World's End and the Prix Medicis Étranger for The Tortilla Curtain, and he has been the recipient of Guggenheims and NEA grants and been translated into at least 12 languages. Still, you get the feeling that the guy doesn't get the respect he thinks he deserves. (Check out his advertisement for himself at Could it be that he's too West Coast, living outside as he does in Santa Barbara, far from literary New York's madding crowd? Could it be that his prolific rate of publication seems suspicious, a sign of unseriousness (something from which writers as lionized as Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike suffer)? Or could it be that his language is so smoothly entertaining, his style so resolutely bouncy, his plots such efficient engines of developing conflict, climax and resolution (many of them ready-to-play for the Hollywood mill that Boyle believes is his competition for audience attention) that it all feels a little mechanical and workaday, never as formally innovative or as spiritually searching as the work of the great guns of the postmodern era—such as Toni Morrison, DeLillo, Roth, Pynchon?

That last suspicion—that Boyle is too facile, too accessible and crowd-pleasing to be truly great—is a charge hurled at people like Tom Wolfe or John Irving, too, and it brings up hackle-raising issues of elitism, literary difficulty as a sign of seriousness, and the whole modernist theoretical monolith which marginalizes writers like Boyle, who insist that their instinct to entertain in no way conflicts with their desire to use fiction as some entrance into truth and beauty. B.R. Myers, whose “A Reader's Manifesto” in The Atlantic's July and August issues blasted some of the great guns (like DeLillo) for their “pretentiousness,” “obscurity” and “affected prose,” argued that we need more writers like Boyle. Myers complained that “any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be . . . at best an excellent 'read' or a 'page turner,' but never literature with a capital L.”

Despite his success, Boyle's accessible, fast-moving tales written in unaffected prose are certainly having trouble in the current literary environment, making the journey from lower- to uppercase L. The question is why? Can we make a case for Boyle?

Here's the pro side: Boyle's new tome, After the Plague, makes clear in story after story that his narrative instincts for grabbing a reader's attention are up there with Mark Twain's. He can whip up a compelling 20-page tale out of the barest nugget of an idea. Most of us probably don't think we care about structure, but we do: a story that sets us down into a subconscious groove of introduction, rising action, developing tension, climax and denouement gives a pleasure that is as real as it is inarticulable. (Some of Boyle's stories read like see-this-is-how-it's-done examples for his creative-writing classes at USC.) Take, for instance, “She Wasn't Soft,” a story about one of those health-nutty marathon-running couples who seem epidemic in SoCal. The “conflict” is clear from the beginning: while the woman, Paula, is all flinty ambition (“she was going to conquer the world”), her boyfriend, Jason, “didn't really have the fire of competition in him.” Boyle takes us by the hand, opens the door into their (shallow) relationship, and begins hinting at Jason's jealousy and bitterness. The night before the big race, a drunken Jason forces himself on her sexually (“she just lay there beneath him like she was dead”), and then mortified with shame the next day, decides he'll do anything to help her win, including drugging Paula's arch rival with a spiked sports drink. Boyle milks the race itself for all the suspense it can bear and then gives us the most satisfying kind of ending, one that is both surprising and, in retrospect, perfectly inevitable. (Guess who, in the end, he hands the cup of spiked Gatorade to?) “She Wasn't Soft” is a well-oiled piece of machinery with just enough sharp, satirical detail to make you think it's saying something penetrating about the way we live now.

There are a dozen other stories here that are as technically impressive—it's not for nothing that nine of these stories were published in The New Yorker—but after a while, what's well-oiled just gets to being greasy. Boyle's so slick he gives the impression he can write this stuff in his sleep, and after you read a few pieces you start thinking maybe he does.

So here comes the con side: Is there another prominent American writer who cares less about character than T.C. Boyle? (Everybody in his stories is a type, not a person.) Is there another prominent American writer who takes up Big Issues—abortion, child murder, a worldwide Ebola-like plague of devastating proportions—with less sense of their real-life immediacy, and who seems interested in them only as groovy ideas to hang a plot on? Some critics are praising the title story, “After the Plague,” to the skies, as if its rendition of a plague-ridden world reverberates more in Sept. 11's aftermath, but the threat of real bombings, or of anthrax or smallpox, actually point out how shallow Boyle's apocalyptic vision really is. The story is told by a lucky male survivor who was hiding out in the mountains during the devastation and who thinks of this new world as “more relaxed and expansive, more natural. The rat race was over, the freeways were clear all the way to Sacramento, and the poor dwindling ravaged planet was suddenly big and mysterious again. It was a kind of miracle really, what the environmentalists had been hoping for all along.”

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.

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