At 945 pages, T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, follows volume 1 which was a mere 708 pages. If you’re a TC Boyle fan, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection, and if you’ve never read this author but like short stories, then there’s something here for you. The first volume was published in 1998, so here we are 15 years later with volume 2, and T.C. Boyle’s been busy. The stories are a combination of various short story collections: After the Plague (15 of the 16 stories), Tooth and Claw (15), Wild Child (14), and 14 uncollected stories which appear in the final section of the book under the title: A Death in Kitchawank.
As with any collection, there are some stories that hit a nerve and stay with you. This is such a large collection, it’s impossible to discuss all my favourites, but Boyle got my attention right away with the first story in the collection: Termination Dust. This story is set in Alaska–a place I’ve never visited, but a state that holds a fascination for me. The story is about a ‘event’–I don’t know what else to call it–which involves 107 single, all-too available women who arrive from the lower 48 to meet Alaskan bachelors:
There were a hundred and seven of them, of all ages, shapes and sizes, from twenty-five- and thirty-year-olds in dresses that looked like they were made of saran wrap to a couple of big-beamed older types in pantsuits who could have been somebody’s mother–and I mean somebody grown, with a goatee beard and a job at McDonald’s.
Our narrator is Ned, a man who’s there to greet the mostly “hard-looking” women as they arrive at a hotel for the Labor Day Weekend event which includes a buffet, a “Malibu Beach Party,” and an auction. See in a town like Boynton, population 170, there are just 32 women, “all of them married and all of them invisible.” Women are in short supply, and there are reasons for that. English teacher, Jordy seems to stand out from the rest of the women at the auction, so after the meet-and-greet it’s probably not surprising that bidding for a date with Jordy is hot and heavy. Local bad boy Bud Withers, who now has plastic feet after his real ones were badly frostbitten following a night of boozing, bids against Ned. The proceeds from the auction are for charity, but charity is far from the minds of the men as they bid, furiously, for the women.
Nobody talked about sex–that would demean the spirit of the thing–but it was there, under the surface, like a burning promise.
Killing Babies is another favourite and this story shows how TC Boyle can take a controversial subject and weave it into fiction but this is not a ‘statement’ story, so the characters feel very real . This is the story of Rick, a young addict, just out of rehab, who moves in with his brother, sister-in-law and their children as part of his court-dictated release agreement.
When I got out of rehab for the second time, there were some legal complications, and the judge–an old jerk who looked like they’d just kicked him out of the Politburo–decided I needed a sponsor. There was a problem with some checks I’d been writing for a while there when my resources were going up the glass tube.
Rick leaves sunny California and lands in Detroit in the middle of the long winter–a place where “the only palm trees are under glass in the botanical gardens.” Rick is one of those people who doesn’t take life too seriously:
I wasn’t stupid. Not particularly–no stupider than anybody else, anyway–and I was no criminal, either. I’d just drifted into a kind of thick sludge of hopelessness after I dropped out of school for a band I put my whole being into, a band that disintegrated within the year, and one thing led to another. Jobs came and went. I spent a lot of time on the couch, channel-surfing and thumbing through books that used to mean something to me. I found women and lost them. And I learned that a line up your nose is a dilettante’s thing, wasteful and extravagant. I started smoking, two or three nights a week, and then it was every day, all day, and why not?
Rick hasn’t seen Philip in six years, and Philip hasn’t aged well:
So Philip. He met me at the airport, his thirty-eight year face as trenched with anal-retentive misery as our father’s was in the year before he died.
You’d think there would be some catching up to do, but the relationship slides back into its old grooves. At first, Rick thinks that Philip has an enviable life, but there’s something wrong, and Rick, who’s hired as “an entry-level drudge” at his brother’s clinic, soon finds out what the problem is. Rick’s never taken anything in life, even his rehab, his check-bouncing, and his court appearances to heart, but now here suddenly he finds himself in the middle of a situation fraught with tension and controversy. Will this be a maturing experience or an explosive one?
Boyle shows his incredible range in these stories, always hitting an authentic voice–no matter the subject, the character, or the situation. In Achates McNeil, a young college student who was abandoned by his famous, hip author father, is confronted by the very man he loathes in his Contemporary American Literature class when he sees two of his father’s novels on the syllabus. Achates find out the hard way that having a famous father has its benefits and its drawbacks, and even the benefits seem to morph into drawbacks somehow. Achates finds himself publicly confronted with his father’s impossible ego, stripped of any privacy he may have had when his father decides, once again, to use real life as the raw material for a novel.
After the Plague takes a look at a post-apocalyptic America, and I loved this story for its unique take on a clichéd much-overused scenario. In Peep Hall, a story in which reality and fantasy collide, a under-employed middle-aged man who works on his Master’s thesis (eleven years behind schedule) in his spare time, becomes addicted to “Peep Hall,” a subscription website in which six college girls “going about their business” are monitored by strategically placed cameras as they shower, gossip, and exercise (in the nude). In Jubiliation, a great favourite, no matter which author or story collection under consideration, concerns an affluent man who decides to buy a home in a popular Florida theme park. In this “dream community,” houses are in demand and are sold by lottery. Jackson Peters Reilly considers himself lucky to ‘win’ and he moves into the community–only to find that things can still go south.
I’ve been living in Jubilation for almost two years now. There’s been a lot of change in that time, both for the better and the worse, as you might expect in any real and authentic town composed of real and authentic people with their iron-clad personalities and various personal agendas, but overall I’d say I chose the Contosh Corp’s vision of community living. I’ve got friends here, neighbors, people who care about me the way I care about them. We’ve had our crises–no question about it–Mother Nature has been pretty erratic these past two years–and there isn’t a man, woman or child in Jubilation who isn’t worried about maintain property values in the face of all the naysaying and criticism that’s come our way. Still, it’s the people this whole thing is about, and the people I know are as determined and forward-looking a bunch as any you’d ever hope to find. We’ve built something here, something I think we can all be proud of.
With some exceptions, this bulk of this collection explores many aspects of contemporary American life–the controversial, the mundane, life as we experience it in its many manifestations. As fans of Boyle’s work know, one of this author’s favourite themes is the conflict between civilisation and the wilderness, so that theme also appears frequently here in many of the stories. From the back story of the underground gardens of Fresno, a case of plane rage, and the voice of a middle-aged woman who believes that “cleanliness … is what separates us from the animals,” Boyle shows compassion, insight and a remarkable ability to create authentic voices. This is a huge collection, and it serves to showcase Boyle’s incredible talent.