T.C. Boyle has been on a roll of late. His last two novels, "Drop City" (2003) and "The Inner Circle" (2004), have been big hits with both readers....
“The Human Fly and Other Stories”
by T.C. Boyle
Speak/Viking Children’s Books, 179 pp., $9.99
“Tooth and Claw and Other Stories”
by T.C. Boyle
Viking, 284 pp., $25.95
T.C. Boyle has been on a roll of late. His last two novels, “Drop City” (2003) and “The Inner Circle” (2004), have been big hits with both readers and critics. So it’s no surprise that more Boyle is in the pipeline for this fall — in the form of two short-story collections.
“The Human Fly And Other Stories” is billed as a reader for teenagers. Whether this idea works as a marketing ploy will depend on the literary tastes of young adolescents. In my ancient view, this collection gives us is a number of early Boyle stories (and a few relatively new ones) that are of very mixed quality.
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The good ones are very good indeed. “Greasy Lake,” written in 1981, is a classic, already enshrined in a number of English-class textbooks. This dark tale of teenage cruising gone to hell has the edgy violence and sense of dread that is a Boyle trademark. A truly upsetting story.
Just as unsettling in a far different way is “The Love of My Life,” a story of two young lives ruined by an unplanned pregnancy. Boyle creates a modern tragedy that allows the reader to feel both revulsion and pity. This one will definitely resonate with high-school-age students.
“The Human Fly” rounds out the good stuff. A tribute to crazed, dogged ambition, this story is a funny blend of pain and pleasure. The rest of the lot trade on two of Boyle’s more irritating qualities: self-conscious attempts at whimsy and social-justice sermonizing.
“Tooth and Claw,” Boyle’s second offering, comprised of his newer fiction, is a much stronger collection and presents him at the top of his game.
Nearly all the stories have main characters that are “running hard up against the sharp edges of the world.” Through personal tragedy, bad choices or a kind of perverse curiosity, Boyle’s characters enter psychic places that pull them out of their middle-class lives, for better or worse.
In “Dogology” Boyle counterpoints two story lines: a young suburban wife running with a pack of dogs, and an account of East Indian wolf-children. Both endings make a case for avoiding the human-socialization process.
“In Tooth and Claw,” the title piece, a young man between jobs wins a caged wild animal in a bar bet and his domestic situation takes a definite turn to the wild side:
“A screech tore through the room, the cage flew open and the thing was an airborne blur slamming against the cheap plywood panel of the bedroom door, even as Daria and I fought to force it shut.”
Two stories, the comic “Swept Away” and the ironic “The Swift Passage of Animals,” feature people exposed to the forces of nature. Another, “Blinded by the Light,” concerns the morbid threat of ecological disaster. In each, Boyle traces how extreme conditions reveal character.
“Chicxulub,” like the previously mentioned “Dogology,” combines a double story: the impact of an asteroid striking the Earth with the consequences of an automobile wreck. Here Boyle probes at one of our deepest post-modern fears:
“The thing that disturbs me about Chicxulub, aside from the fact that it erased the dinosaurs and wrought catastrophic and irreversible change, is the deeper implication that we, and all our work and worries and attachments, are so utterly inconsequential.”
Skillfully mixing the surreal with the mundane, Boyle knows how to get under our skins. “Tooth and Claw” extends his reputation as one of our most consistently interesting writers.