"The Wild Child"
By T.C. Boyle Viking. Pp. 304. $25.95
T.C. Boyle's volume of his collected stories first appeared in 1998, a book that included nearly seven hundred pages of his short fiction. Today, more than ten years and four volumes and dozens and dozens and dozens of stories later, his output of stories has to be reckoned with as one of the most enormous and successful in contemporary literature, as formidable in its breadth and fluency as that of Joyce Carol Oates'. In terms of recent literary history this really puts the lie to the conventional wisdom that there is no place in contemporary commercial publishing for the short story form. There is lots of space. Ironically, Boyle, along with Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro, seem to be filling most of it.
But, you know, the serious reader can only say deservedly so. This latest collection from Boyle, with more than a dozen stories and the title novella, show off the brilliance of his talent and his imaginative approach to the varied layers and levels of the contemporary American experience, in all of its ups and downs, etched in a style that sentence by sentence captures the often ridiculous, sometimes poignant, always fascinating fragments of the way we live now.
A lot of the stories are set in Southern California, which happens to be the place where the upstate New York transplant has resided for nearly half his life. Certainly a story such as "La Conchita" is a quintessential California story in its relentless—and ultimately generous???take on a man who overcomes a massive local mudslide and the mudslide in his soul. How to fill the emptiness of a man’s soul becomes the large question in the story titled "Anacapa", ostensibly about a deep-sea fishing expedition off the coast of southern California. "Balto", an absolutely chilling story about parental responsibility-- or lack thereof-- and familial duty, leads to an unexpected revelation in a Los Angeles courtroom. "Ash Monday" takes up in really interesting ways the matter of neighborhood diversity and environmental dangers in this same Southern California locale.
But there are just as many fine stories in this collection that remain geographically diverse, as in "The Lie", in which one misspoken revelation changes a marriage and a life, and "Hands On," in which one woman???s decision to have plastic surgery reveals a soul scarcely skin deep. The title story, a novella really, moves us back in time to late Eighteenth-early Nineteenth Century France for a sober but stylistically sharp recounting of the famous history of the "wild boy of Aveyron."
Each of these stories, each so different from every other and each so beautifully delivered, has the effect on the reader that a drink has on the alcoholic protagonist of "Balto". This man finds that inebriated he is transported to a new place where the world springs to life "in the fullness of its detail, everything sharpened, in focus, as if he'd needed glasses all these years and just clapped them on"… It may seem odd to invoke that old stylistic New York convolutionist Henry James when discussing Southern California's almost unnaturally prolific T.C. Boyle, but when you think about his remark that a writer is someone "on whom nothing is lost" you can see that the two of them have much more in common than merely sharing the same state of birth.
Alan Cheuse is an author, a writing teacher at George Mason University and a book commentator for NPR???s "All Things Considered."