Boyle Wonder

None of this is to suggest T. C. Boyle Storiesis without problems; given its length, it can sometimes be unwieldy, and in a few cases characters and situations blur together, leaving us unclear about where certain stories begin or end. At the same time, there are places in which verbal virtuosity yields to glibness, and you get the sense that he is hitting notes merely for the sake of showing off. A story like "Beat," where a 17-year-old wanna-Beat hunkers down in Jack Kerouac's Long Island living room during the Christmas holidays of 1958, functions more as a parody of itself than of the historical or literary moment it seeks to satirize, and the same is true of "Big Game" or "The 100 Faces of Death, Volume IV"— stories that use exuberant language to hide a fundamental emptiness underneath. It may or may not be coincidental that the least successful work here comes from Boyle's last collection, Without a Hero, although that same volume also produced what may be his finest piece of short fiction, the heartbreaking "Back in the Eocene." Either way, these stories highlight the dichotomy at the heart of Boyle's career, where the substantial and the superficial exist together, and the line between art and artifice often ends up looking like a question mark.

Because of this, T. C. Boyle Storiesdoesn't really resolve the matter of its author's place (or lack thereof) in the pantheon. What it does, however, may be equally important: by focusing attention on Boyle's short fiction, the book provides a whole new context for interpreting his work. It's not that Boyle's stories have been overlooked, exactly, although in a culture as fixated as ours on size, any novelist's shorter writings can't help but be regarded as afterthoughts. Yet T. C. Boyle Storiesbrings into sharp relief the extent to which this material is central to our understanding of Boyle's career. In marking out a literary universe that is both diverse and remarkably consistent, the stories here— despite their occasional failings— add up to an oeuvre all their own.

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