The best story in "Without a Hero and Other Stories," T. Coraghessan Boyle's latest collection of short fiction, involves a curious event in recent Baltimore history.
"Little America," an impeccably drawn and utterly sad tale, is the fictionalized account of the days before the Oct. 8, 1988, discovery of Richard Evelyn Byrd III's body in a Hampden warehouse. In the story, Byrd, the elderly son of polar explorer Adm. Richard Byrd, is a gentle, enfeebled soul led astray by an opportunistic lowlife who steals his watch and credit card and then leaves him to freeze to death.
Mr. Boyle, has, of course, gained a large measure of his fame through appropriating contemporaneous subjects for his fiction. Mostly, however, his modernness found its forum in hyperbolic lampoons of lightly traditional short stories.
"Little America," one of 15 stories in this, his fourth compilation of short pieces, is a minor departure. Using a lean, no-words-wasted style and technique often linked to Don DeLillo, Mr. Boyle gives Byrd's death a somber, heartfelt treatment.
While it is the curiosity item here, "Little America" is by no means representative of the rest of the collection. Mr. Boyle's longtime readers will be happy to hear he delivers the usual entertaining goods: instantly accessible, easily digested slices of life and satire.
Those who've followed Mr. Boyle's storied career (which includes a PEN/Faulkner Award for "World's End") know he prefers the absurd to the profound. He didn't move from New York years ago to Southern California to root for the Dodgers. The environment there is obviously more conducive to personal and social extremism, and other such unofficial foolery that is ripe for Mr. Boyle's thoroughly modern satire.
The opening story, "Big Game," has a plot and acerbity worthy of Evelyn Waugh. A rich real estate agent and his wife drive to a Bakersfield safari/hunting ground in search of live prey. Their hope of turning native African fauna into wall decorations comes jTC to a dark end when an aging elephant becomes a one-pachyderm stampede.
With similar acridity, Mr. Boyle unfolds the witty "Filthy With Things," the tale of Julian, an amateur astronomer who is besieged by the fruits of his wife's "acquisitive disorder." But Julian, a milquetoast, becomes even more henpecked by the "professional organizer" he hires to dispense with the clutter. He loses control of an already lost life.
As usual, Mr. Boyle's devils are always in his details. Bernard Puff, safari ground owner, dresses up his black assistant in African skirts, for instance.
Professional organizer Susan Certaine, meanwhile, dons the primmest business suits and the thickest glasses while she manipulates Julian with images of starving Ethiopians. To "cleanse" him, she takes virtually everything he owns.
In "Top of the Food Chain," the author carries his penchant for absurdity to over-the-top heights. Set during a Senate hearing, the story is related entirely -- and in second person -- by a chemical company executive on the defensive about the effects of DDT in Borneo.
Faced with responsibility for lost species, starvation and the bubonic plague, the executive replies -- in Thurberesque bluster -- "It could be worse, and to every cloud a silver lining, wouldn't you agree, gentlemen?"
Among the more straightforward character studies found in "Without A Hero," the author finds his best voice in "Acts of God," the story of a Florida contractor whose choice between a shrewish wife and the ever-beckoning bottle is given immediate focus through the eye of a hurricane.
Yet, it is in relaying these simpler, more noble tales that Mr. Boyle is more likely to stumble, his style becoming more facile and glib than entertaining. A chance encounter between an incontinent dog and a sunbather, for example, leads an apolitical man to blindly follow his lover, an animal-rights activist, on a mission to liberate farm turkeys. Too predictable.
A manufactured "memoir" of one hanger-on's experiences with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg does nothing but restate cliches about beats and their mythos. Too trite.
The title piece likewise lacks boldness and originality. A free-thinking, materialistic Russian girl predictably falls in love with a young, somewhat uptight Californian in a fit of glasnost. She leaves when he, afraid of her recklessness, won't marry her. She becomes a prostitute to sustain her money habit. Somehow, that doesn't ring true.
Still, even the author's misses are almost pleasurable to pace through, since Mr. Boyle's odd twists here and there can lead to often powerful conclusions. That he doesn't unerringly deliver these is proof of how much we expect from good writers: way too much.
The best thing you can say about Mr. Boyle's short works is this: When you find one you like, you marvel over the cleverness and concision. When you don't, you thank him for not taking up too much of your time.
And is there anything more contemporaneous than that?
Mr. Anft is a writer and critic who lives in Baltimore.
Title: "Without a Hero and Other Stories"
Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle
Length, price: 238 pages, $20.95