Wednesday, October 27, 2010

7# T C Boyle ''Tooth and Claw''

There are those authors who remain well known names to readers, whose key book - in this case Tortilla Curtain - remains the one title readers know whether they've read it or not. But then when readers decide to dip further into the works they are surprised, awed, inspired by the results. In this case it was for me discovering the short stories of T C Boyle. This revelation came to me in the form of a recent collection called Tooth and Claw. I was aware of T C Boyle, I had read some of his stories in the New Yorker and heard him read Tobias Wolff's story in the New Yorker podcast, knew he was one of the successful Iowa group but beyond that I just knew the titles, Tortilla Curtain, Water Music, the World’s End and a few others.

I was happily duped into buying the collection based on the somewhat misleading blub in which the characters are described as deadbeats and bar crawlers. It was the sort of book I was looking to read without laying any great importance on it. But after the first line ''he was on a tear'' there appear many more colours, nuances, so much more variety than the blub has you believe. For me T C Boyle is interesting because of his ability to draw any part of the world into his own stratagem and to mould and weld that into something unique. South America, small town on the English Coast, suburban America - they are each treated with a force of imagination and, to use the Greek word, Ekstasis, they come alive in ways that bear on the cinematic.

I associate T C Boyle not so much with the Iowa group, he seems a generation or two away from Carver and even the younger Denis Johnson, but more with filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch – representing an era and attitude transcending the ideals and ideologies of so many film makers and writers than came before them. I would define it as a sort of quietness, a humour and stoicism you see in so many Wes Anderson characters, noticeable in so many scenes in The Big Lebowski and Fargo and encapsulated so well in Jim Jarmusch’s early Night on Earth or later Coffee and Cigarettes.

What also makes T C Boyle so interesting to read is that each cannibalised era is weighed with equal authenticity. The cultural pivots in this one book alone- 70s fashion and music, housing projects reminiscent of the 80s and 90s corporate climate in Jubilation and even 17thC New York. Some stories are of the Carver-esque human-in-crisis theme but styled in a much more vigorous, erratic and broad way. Some stories are near pastiches or parodies, or perhaps better to say grotesques (in the best possible sense), such as Dogology and Tooth and Claw. Others blend the very real with the ethereal, such as in my favourite story in the piece: The Kind Assassin.

Some may say that T C Boyle's weakness is that there is no one T C Boyle, that his characters are often divisive and at worst a crude tool to move the action along. But he is advancing an aspect of writing fiction that seems to have gone by the wayside after Nabokov and Barthelme died - the idea of the artifice, the idea that the reader is well aware they are participating in something unreal. T C Boyle may well be one of the last great tonics to a pervasive American realism, but on his side he has George Saunders and Ben Marcus and hopefully these authors will, like Boyle has over the past few decades, diversity fiction in many directions and defy the stifling Jonathan Frazen straight-jackets handed out to prospective authors as the 'real thing'.

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