T.C. Boyle is my favorite author and I hate him. The reasons he stands as my favorite author are almost as multitudinous as Mr. Boyle’s dextrous vocabulary or perhaps his amazingly diverse lexicon of stories, while the reasons I hate him feel much more self-serving and nebulous. The latter seems the easiest place to start, for is it not necessary to scrape the surface before delving into the depths, and my hatred for Mr Boyle is indeed a very thin veneer covering a universe of praise, envy, and inspiration. His latest collection of short stories does nothing to allay my previous feelings toward him, and indeed both my love and hate of his stories and writing have been multiplied after reading this latest collection–Tooth and Claw.
First of all, why do I hate him? For one thing he uses lots of big words in his stories, many words I have never encountered in all my days of speaking and reading English, words like insouciance, hypnogogic, and astereognosis. When reading a T.C. Boyle story prepare to feel like your vocabulary is woefully inadequate, and make sure you have a dictionary handy. He strings his language together into sentences in such a unique and unexpected way that I am left awed and envious and feeling unworthy (see example quoted in p-6). I know I couldn’t have written it myself, but wish I had anyway. He is funny, and his dry written wit is constantly making me smile, chuckle, laugh out loud even, and my own pitiful attempts at humor will never measure up. He is so prolific, and all of it of such seeming high quality. Who can hope to compare to such standards? Often when I think I have an idea for a great story I realize that T.C. Boyle has not only already written something similar, but it is far better than anything I could have imagined.
Of course these little digs are thinly veiled praise, but I do actually have one legitimate gripe with his catalog of stories. I am always ready for the linguistic joy ride Mr Boyle will take me on during his stories, amazed by the verbal gymnastics and literary fireworks his writing displays, but sometimes at the end of the ride I wonder where I am. Sometimes his stories come full circle for me and I feel very fulfilled, but other times it feels as if it ends up in an entirely different place and I wonder how I got there. Sometimes I feel left hanging and unresolved when I finish his stories, and little disappointed perhaps, but its never because of the writing. Sometimes his stories feel more like exquisitely written explorations of awkward situations rather than complete stories. I only had that feeling after two of the stories in this collection, and rest gave me a sense of satisfaction when the ride was over.
Okay, so why is he my favorite author? Why is water wet? Why is the sky blue? Why do tea partiers make me irrationally angry? Some things just are and are hard to explain. I have read almost every short story T.C. Boyle has ever published, some many more times than once. I have his 700 page first anthology of stories living on my bed-side table, and there are numerous stories that I read religiously whenever I’m depressed or seeking inspiration (Descent of Man, John Barleycorn Lives, We Are Noresmen, Green Hell, and Top of the Food Chain are five I’ve almost memorized at this point). In a way I find his earlier writing a little easier to digest, not quite so dazzling and technical, and little closer to something I think I could possibly emulate. But the real reason I find his stories so great is the diversity of their subjects. Usually unusual, often quirky, sometimes on the verge of being over the top unbelievable, but just believable enough to be possible. Through absurdity and sometimes stupidity we can arrive at deep and moving truths, laughing all the way to enlightenment.
This collection clearly demonstrates his versatility in subject matter. There are a few prerequisite druggie and alcoholic stories (When I Woke Up This Morning, Here Comes, and All the Wrecks I’ve Climbed Out Of), because what better way to demonstrate absurdity and redemption than through the wonderful idiocy of non-sobriety. But past these three the stories are amazingly diverse and unusual. From a women that runs with a pack of neighborhood dogs in an attempt to uncover their secret culture (Dogology), to a DJ trying to set the world record for staying awake while on display in the town square (The Kind Assassin), to a wannabe college student that wins a wild animal in a dice game at a bar (Tooth and Claw), to parents that are summoned to the hospital to identify the body of their daughter while eerie parallels are drawn between catastrophic asteroids of the past (Chicxulub), to a sheep rancher in Argentina stuck in his ancient ways and denying the evidence of a disastrous hole in the sky above him (Blinded by the Light), these stories take the reader on a new entertaining adventure with each one. The other stories in this collection are equally diverse and unexpected. Mr Boyle is great at mixing up the voice and POV of his stories. Whether written in first or third person, and whether the protagonists are male or female, educated or uneducated, drunk or sober, Mr Boyle’s unique style comes through in a different and unique voice for every story, making each both familiar and new. His older stories also share this diversity in scope and subject, which has contributed to my admiration for his writing.
The story I was most amazed by in this collection was the story I felt I could have never, ever written. The story was a sad love story entitled Swept Away, which takes place on the northernmost tip of Scotland, in the Shetland Islands upon the Isle of Unst. I had read this story before, in the O.Henry Prize Anthology in 2003, and what I at once remembered was the wind. I found it amazing how the author established the place and the atmosphere immediately in this story. The entire first page does nothing but describe the force and ferocity of the wind, which really is the antagonist of the story, as it takes a major roll in the passage of events. We get an immediate sense of the place through this description of the moving air:
“… but in the end the only real story here is the wind. The puff and blow of it. The ceaselessness. The squelched keening of air in movement, running with its currents like a new sea clamped atop the old, winnowing, harrowing, pinching everything down to nothing. It rakes the islands day and night, without respect to season, though if you polled the denizens of Yell, Funzie and Papa Stour, to a man, woman, lamb and pony they would account winter the worst for the bite of it and the sheer frenzy of its coming. One January within living memory the wind blew at gale force for twenty-nine days without remit, and on New Year’s Eve back in ‘92 the gusts were estimated at 201 mph at the Muckle Flugga lighthouse here on the northernmost tip of the Isle of Unst. But that was only an estimate: the weather service’s wind gauge was torn from its moorings and launched into eternity that day, along with a host of other things, stony and animate alike.”
Excerpt From: Boyle, T.C. Swept Away in “Tooth and Claw.” Penguin Books, 2005-09-08. iBooks.
Not only does the author immediately establish a sense of place, but a noticeable tone is also established, through the use of an unusual syntax that feels like a Shetland brogue. The narrator of the story is an inhabitant of an unnamed town, and tells the story of a local man, Robbie Baikie, that falls for a visiting American Ornithological Woman. Junie Ooley has travelled to the island to photograph the nesting seabirds for the season, and her savior from an initial wind borne calamity becomes her suitor. For Robbie she quickly becomes his entire world, but to her this island and him included are just a temporary stop on a worldwide tour. Their relationship is doomed right from the start, and everyone sees it but poor Robbie Baikie, and in the end all that is left is the wind. But for me it is the unusual tone of this story that is so compelling, created by the unusual syntax of the narrator, as well as the omnipresence of the wind in this unusual landscape.
Another reason I find this story compelling is the plural first person point of view. The narrator is a member of the unnamed town, and a willing participant in and interpreter of the passage of events. But the story is not about him or the town, but a love story about Robbie and Junie, as ill fated as their short affair might be, and of course the unabated assault of the wind. Between this point of view, the wonderful syntax of the voice, and the amazing sense of place and tone created in this story, I found it truly mesmerizing, and made this story one that will not doubt be added to my short of list of T.C. Boyle favorites.
So is it really possible to hate your favorite author? Probably not. Hate is a strong word, and as a writer I am sometimes prone to abusing hyperbole. I suppose disappointed might be a more apt term in this case. I am disappointed by my lack of vocabulary, by the un-prolific magnitude of my scribblings, by the fleeting nature of my successes, and by my sad little stories that don’t measure up. When I finish one of his stories I am sometimes disappointed that I did not write it myself, like somehow if things had turned out different I may have been able beat him to the punch. But then I’ll find a story like this one that just feels so perfect that I am honored and humbled to have read it. I have no delusions that I could have written such a thing myself, and I must put down my pen and simply appreciate it. And of course read the story over and over and over searching for the kernels of literary grace that make it so great. Maybe someday I will understand the magic and be able to match it. Maybe.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I must remember to keep walking, reading, and above all writing, one word at a time. Let the journey begin.
* (I wrote this for a creative writing class I took a while ago. I had fun writing it, so thought I’d post it and see what happens.)