Author: T.C. Boyle
Publisher: Ecco and Harper Collins, New York
Price: $15.90 (Paperback)
Still hammering away at the keyboard at age 74, T.C. Boyle still maintains his place as America’s grand poobah of literary fiction, particularly displaying his mastery in the short story genre; and this most recent collection of 13 tightly crafted slices of life intermixed with occasional forays into his beloved magical realism prove that he is still at the top of his game.
Possessing the investigative instincts of a homicide detective, Boyle so believably inhabits the psyches of his characters that you either commiserate with them or come to hate them. Take for example, The Shape of a Teardrop, where the narrators are a middle-aged woman and her 31-year-old son who lives at home and has elevated mooching to an art form. Disgusted by his lack of contribution, his refusal to recognize his own child, her one and only grandchild, she sees no other option than to have him legally evicted. This is where the fun starts because he countersues on the basis that it was her fault that he was even born and thus forced to endure the hardships of life. Both characters are deeply flawed, a Boyle specialty. The kid is an entitled millennial, so spoiled, self-absorbed, and lazy that you just want to punch him in the face, while the mother is so completely codependent that you want to slap her for being such an easy mark. The narrative switches back and forth from son to mother, and during the son’s turn he explains the court’s ruling:
But the judge was the judge and I was a minute speck on his docket, a blot, a nuisance, nothing. He set down his glasses, looked first to my parents, then to me, and pronounced his verdict. The case I cited, so he claimed, had been superseded by a more recent case and the weight thrown back on the parents’ side, who had the absolute right to evict anybody from their own domicile, and in respect to that and his own determination in the case before him, he was finding against me and giving me forty-eight hours to vacate or face forcible eviction at the hands of the county sheriff who – and here he looked me right in the eye – really had better things to do. Understood?
Predictably, the kid waits to the last minute, forcing the county sheriff’s department to send out an officer his own age to lay down the law before he begrudging moves, all the while resenting what he views as rude and unfair treatment, while the mother feels bad and wants to interfere, but her husband doesn’t let her. The reader is left feeling little empathy for either of them because their beliefs and behavior cause each to reap what they have sown.
Boyle is a master of irony. In The Apartment set in France, an early middle-aged man contracts with an older woman to pay a monthly fee for her apartment when she agrees to have it fall into his possession upon the event of her death. Little does the man realize that he is violation of the third of the three rules of real estate which are: 1.) Location, location, location, 2.) Terms, terms, terms, and 3.) Never wait for an old lady to die. The agreement, entered into when the woman was 90, never does come to fruition as she becomes a 110-year-old supercentenarian, and then unbelievably turns 120, at which point the man’s wife shows him the newspaper announcing the event:
So Marie-Therese thrust the paper at him and he saw the old lady grinning her imperturbable grin under the banner headline – WORLD’S OLDEST LIVING PERRSON TURNS 120 – he felt nothing. Or practically nothing.
‘I wish she would die,’ Marie-Therese hissed.
He wanted to concur, wanted to hiss right back at her, ‘So do I,’ but all he could do is laugh – yes the joke was on him, wasn’t it? – until the laugh became a rasping harsh cough that went on till his lips were bright with blood.
Two days later, he was dead.
And Boyle always has an acute radar for contemporary hot button topics; in the case of the two stories to be elaborated on below – societal acceptance of the awesome power of a person’s credit rating bordering on mind and behavior control, and America’s failure to curb gun violence which is almost always a male perturbated act, and more and more conducted by losers who are involuntary virgins now dubbed as Incels in online communities, making me wonder why they are so cheap as to not hire any number of perfectly good prostitutes.
In SCS 750 The main character is determined to be a winner in the game of life by pushing his credit score over 700, the pursuit of which causes him to eventually turn his back on his best friend and a young woman who is physically out of his league when he comes to the realization that an association with their lower scores is holding him back. Why? Boyle explains:
I was too young to remember a time before our leader became our leader, but I did have enough experience in my teens and now my early twenties to compare the way things were ten years ago and the way they are now. Which didn’t make me a critic or rebel or anything even close – I was like anybody else, happy to live in a society where we could all prosper and love one another and work toward a common goal without worrying about getting ripped off or defrauded or attacked in a dark alley (actually, there are no dark alleys anymore, except in cop shows on TV, but you get the point). Regimes of the past may have used punishment as a way of enforcing laws and regulations, but the Social Credit Score program was more reward/reward, like vying for gold stars on your report card when you were a kid. It was self-regulating, that was the beauty of it, everybody doing everything they could to raise their score and avoid any hint of negativity. As our leader says, ‘Zima Credit insures that all roads are open to good citizens, while the bad ones have nowhere to turn.’
In What’s Love Got to Do with It? a middle-aged woman, who the reader can assume is attractive because she has a beautiful daughter takes an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Dallas to attend a business conference. On her journey, she meets a young man named Eric who is not especially good-looking, somewhat unkempt bordering on being a slob, and who has a huge chip on his shoulder towards pretty girls who won’t give him the time of day. As the story unfolds we discover that he was friends with a campus shooter named E.R. who was enamored with one Mary Ellen Stovall who was something of the campus Queen. Eric, himself takes to stalking Stovall after an incident where she categorically rejects a clumsy pass that E.R. directs at her. He rationalizes he’s doing it just to see what she’s like, but she notices what he’s doing, and he backs off. For E.R.’s part, the humiliation he feels by her rejection turns to violence and he guns down six students and wounds 14 others before turning the gun on himself. Eric and the woman hit an impasse when he shows empathy for the shooter, and as the story develops he angrily reveals why:
‘I’m a virgin,’ he said. ‘An involuntary virgin. So you tell me, how ridiculous is that? How humiliating? I’m twenty-three years old and like the brunt of every joke in every locker room in the world, don’t you get that? And every sorority, every dorm room, every – shit, every goddamned bar and club and, what, TV show –’
…’You have a daughter, right? Isn’t that what you told me?’
‘Is she pretty? She is, isn’t she? Like Mary Ellen Stovall – pretty, right? Right?’
‘I don’t – I’ve never seen Mary Ellen Stovall, so how can l – ?’
‘Would she go out with me? Would she have sex with me?’
After several rationalizations, none of which are especially realistic in light of how the world really works, the woman decides that honesty is the best policy stating:
‘No,’ I said. ‘No, she wouldn’t.’
That’s life, and life isn’t fair, so the rational are forced to play the cards they are dealt. Online communities, especially the aggrieved ones, can be dangerous because those who join them are duped into believing that their beliefs equate to normal behavior, which they feel is confirmed by the other members of the community. There’s the ugliness of what grievance can lead to, and the ongoing question of whether our First Amendment rights are or are not productive in our society being put on high display here. At its core, this story reveals that Boyle is a realist and has a unique ability for forcing his readers to examine their stance on uncomfortable issues as well as on themselves.
Space doesn’t allow for a full review of the remaining nine stories, but I can assure you that if you drink them in, give them time to marinate, and examine their messages in relation to your politics, your morals, and your own personal reality that you might agree, as I do, that all of them are in their own way great.
Kudos to T.C. Boyle. Most of our literary greats, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald and Thompson of note, were spent, disillusioned, and unproductive by their mid-forties. But not Boyle. Going at the rate he is, he just might lap them.