Tn. Coraghessan Boyle has always worn his ego on his sleeve. From the earliest days of his career, he has taken on material most writers won’t go near, doing so with a look-at-me grandeur of both conception and style. In his 1987 novel World’s End, he uses 300 years in the life of a small Hudson Valley town as a framework for explaining the broad sweep of history, while short stories like “I Dated Jane Austen” or “Ike and Nina” (with its fictional love affair between Dwight Eisenhower and Nina Khrushcheva) appropriate various public figures for their own creative ends. It’s an expansive approach to fiction, where the emphasis is on the bravado of Boyle’s imagination, and the hero of every piece is, in some sense, the author himself. Yet despite Boyle’s technical proficiency, the question remains as to whether or not he has the chops to back this up. For every book that, like World’s End or the recent Riven Rock, articulates a complex and idiosyncratic point of view, there are others— East Is East and The Tortilla Curtain, for instance— that come off as two-dimensional, less about the artistry of an unfettered mind at work (or play) than a kind of elaborate literary shtick.
Boyle’s 12th book, T. C. Boyle Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, is clearly meant to address these issues, while staking his claim to the contemporary pantheon. At nearly 700 pages, it’s as big as the author’s ego itself, gathering all but two of his previously collected stories, as well as seven pieces never before published in book form. To be honest, there’s something a little disconcerting about a volume like this coming from an author in midcareer, since such “collected works” almost always seem like museum exhibits, in which the individual stories become secondary to a retrospective overview. By aspiring to the definitive, though, T. C. Boyle Stories reveals a lot about Boyle’s intentions as a social satirist; for him literature is a way of getting down and dirty with the absurdities and petty hypocrisies that motivate so much of modern daily life.
What’s most compelling about T. C. Boyle Stories is its level of continuity, the way its 68 stories fit together like the components of a larger whole. From the first selection, “Modern Love”— a painfully funny take on the culture of safe sex— to the final piece, “Filthy With Things,” and its barren universe in which “There’s nothing there, nothing contained in nothing. Nothing at all,” the collection has a vivid shape, a movement, as certain ideas emerge again and again. Partly, this has to do with its comprehensiveness, but equally important is how Boyle has arranged it, discarding the structures of his four original collections in favor of three extended sections: “Love,” “Death,” and “And Everything in Between.” Because of this, the stories here tend to echo those around them, like “The Ape Lady in Retirement,” with its whispers of the earlier “Descent of Man.” Such resonances enhance our sense of Boyle’s vision, which at its deepest level embodies a strangely modern alienation. In “Peace of Mind,” one family’s dream of home security unravels with tragic consequences, while “The New Moon Party” portrays a disheartened America brought together by the decision to launch an artificial moon into the heavens, only to see its hope dissolve when the satellite causes an unexpected rash of “madness, lunacy, mass hypnosis, call it what you will: it was a mess.” These are stories where the consequences are bleak, often bitter, and the world will always let us down.
For all that, however, Boyle has never been a writer to let a capricious universe get in the way of a good time. He writes like a kid at a carnival, tossing off firecrackers of language that explode like Roman candles in our minds. In “Greasy Lake,” his brief description of two girls— “Tight jeans, stiletto heels, hair like frozen fur”— indelibly burns their image onto the page; “Top of the Food Chain,” meanwhile, begins with an insect problem so extreme “your tamer stuff, your Malathion and pyrethrum and the rest of the so-called environmentally safe products didn’t begin to make a dent in it . . . we might as well have been spraying with Chanel No. 5.”
Throughout these stories, Boyle relies on humor even when dealing with the most dire developments, and much of this material is funny for its own sake, like “Heart of a Champion,” in which Lassie gets the hots for a coyote and abandons Timmy at the very moment he needs her most. This is especially true of the half dozen or so literary knockoffs, where Boyle honors his influences while having a little fun at their expense. In “The Overcoat II,” he tips his hat to Gogol, while “Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua)” updates Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Best of the bunch is “The Big Garage,” a (literally) Kafkaesque nightmare, where a man identified as B. gets lost in the bureaucracy of an auto mechanic’s shop, as he waits— endlessly, hopelessly— for his car to be repaired.
None of this is to suggest T. C. Boyle Stories is 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 Stories doesn’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 Stories brings 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.