by Cdrueallen | 2/2/2014
" The stories in WILD CHILD confirmed my suspicion that T.C. Boyle is the most interesting fiction writer working in the U.S. today. I won't say North America, as Canada has Atwood and Munro, but Boyle is clearly in their all-star league. He wasn't always one of my favorites. His earlier stories were too white and male for me. But he steadily widened his point of view and improved his always impressive technical abilities until he was able to produce what I consider one of the finest novels of the past twenty years, DROP CITY. In both DROP CITY and WILD CHILD, Boyle demonstrates the ability to ground stories with the resonance of myth in the fabric of convincing reality. There are other American writers who excel at the creation of myth, notably Toni Morrison, but, lacking the grounding in reality that Boyle provides, her dream worlds fail to move me as there isn't enough at stake. My prejudice in favor of fiction that carries with it the convincing bite of a reality external to human minds and culture narrows down the field of writers whose latest can get me to pull out my credit card for a hardback purchase to a handful: Smiley, Lethem, Franzen, Boyle.
Smiley used to be the writer whose latest work I most looked forward to, and GREENLANDERS remains one of my favorite novels, but though she still writes with great skill and knows how to tell a good story, Smiley lost me when she retreated into the narrow world of the richest one percent, full of thoroughbred horses and architecturally significant houses in the hills. Another one of my prejudices: I can't stand fiction that fawns on the wealthy.
Lethem wrote wonderfully about the underclass in FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE and though his next, CHRONIC CITY, was a fascinating novel about a member of the cultural underclass, it seems that success might soon have the same effect on Lethem that it did on Smiley. So far I've liked Lethem's subjects and prose enough to pardon his flirtation with post-modernism, which I don't like for the same reasons I don't like magic realism or too much mythologizing, but I much prefer Boyle's less affected style, and if Lethem's next is a post-modern novel about New York's cultural elite, he'll drop off my list of must-read writers.
I admire Franzen as much for his courage in writing about the ecological collapse of our planet, a topic that bores and annoys many readers, as I do for his wit, but with FREEDOM Franzen too is exhibiting symptoms of the Smiley syndrome, dulling of his satirical edge and increasing his tendency to have everything end up in a warm financially secure place.
You won't find many warm safe fuzzy places in the stories in WILD CHILD. There are bars and restaurants where men, reaching for the pleasures of the moment, slip, fall, and fail. There's a monumental mudslide where one of these failed, always potentially violent men grabs at a shovel and an illusory chance of redemption. There's the house in a middle class suburb where a lonely man falls in love with a rat and ends up dead in a sea of rodents. There's the gated mansion where a black unemployed college girl takes a job dog sitting a quarter million dollar puppy. There's the early 19th century French institution where the wild child of the title is introduced to Enlightenment civilization. There's a trailer park where a woman decides that a feral cat's worth sacrificing for a dubious male lover while across the country her married sister falls in love with an escaped tiger. There's a run-down recording studio in wintery New York where a second-string backup singer finds a moment of heaven. And my favorite, a terrorist camp in the jungles of Venezuela where the middle-aged mother of a Mexican baseball millionaire survives by doing what she always has, which is the daily work of recreating civilization. All of these settings are places for Boyle to explore the conflicts between men and women, rich and poor, man and animal, and to think about the nature of Nature, in stories that are never didactic and always amusing. Financial success hasn't caused Boyle to forget what the world looks like to most of its impoverished inhabitants, and age has only increased his ability to see the world through the eyes of women. In fact it's Boyle's ability to create female characters whose lives aren't subsumed by men that makes him stand out from his talented male (and most of his female) contemporaries.
Boyle can write as beautiful a sentence as any language-obsessed writer, like the one that begins his title story "Wild Child":
"During the first hard rain of autumn, when the leaves lay like currency at the feet of the trees and the branches shone black against a diminished sky, a party of hunters from the village of Lacaune, in the Languedoc region of France, returning cold and damp and without anything tangible to show for their efforts, spotted a human figure in the gloom ahead."
What's great about this sentence, and all of the sentences in this collection, is that they never call so much attention to themselves that they get in the way of the story. Rather they carry you forward into a life you couldn't have imagined on your own while depositing just a trace of extra loveliness on the way, like using the right amount of good scent instead of a whole cheap bottle of flowery verbiage.
In WILD CHILD, Boyle displays all the literary qualities I like: the courage to write about serious social problems; convincing characters of many classes, genders, and nationalities; a sly satirical but not too obvious wit; and smooth beautiful unobtrusive writing. I'm looking forward to many more years of reading his very fine work. "